The Real Maori and Pacific Legends That Inspired Disney's Moana

Moana | © Disney
Joe Coates

If you haven’t already seen Moana, then do yourself a favour and go and buy a copy right now and give it a watch. It’s Disney at its finest — with brilliant characters, beautiful imagery and some absolutely epic tunes. Where did this world spring from though? Read on, and discover the Maori and Polynesian legends that inspired this modern-day classic.

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The female lead of this story is Moana, a future tribal leader from the fictional island of Motonui. What you might not know, but which makes total sense considering what happens in the film, is that Moana is the Te Reo Maori (and Hawaiian) word for ocean.


Now, one of the protagonists of this wonderful story is Maui — voiced by the real life demigod, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In the movie, the creators employed a fair bit of creative license so that they could make their story more cohesive and smooth. However, the character of Maui is based on a real mythic figure who played a major role in Maori mythology.

One way in which Disney’s Maui differs from the traditional portrayal of the demigod is that they make him an orphan. Now, obviously, this is so audiences — most specifically children — would feel more sympathetic to the brash and egotistical character which Maui starts off as. Traditionally though, Maui has three brothers and a trickster son or stepson.

In one of the catchy Disney musical numbers, we hear about the feats that made Maui famous.
“Hey, what has two thumbs and pulled up the sky
When you were waddling ye high? This guy
When the nights got cold, who stole you fire from down below?
You’re looking at him, yo!
Oh, also I lassoed the sun, you’re welcome
To stretch your days and bring you fun
Also, I harnessed the breeze, you’re welcome
To fill your sails and shake your trees.”

Maui’s Fish Hook

One of the things that any kid who has seen the movie will be able to tell you is that Maui’s strength is tied up in his larger than life magical fish hook. In Moana, Maui uses this fish hook to turn himself into different creatures and defeat his enemies and adversaries. In traditional Maori lore, Maui did indeed have a fish hook. He used this to pull up the pacific islands from which Polynesia derives its name — Polynesia literally means “many islands.” A couple of these islands just so happened to be modern day New Zealand. It is actually told, in Maori lore, that Maui used his fish hook to pull up a huge fish one day and that fish became the North Island.

The Kakamora

Who are the kakamora? These are the little guys in the movie that try and accost Moana and Maui whilst they’re sailing. They look like little coconuts that have sprouted arms and legs, and whilst they’re used in the film as baddies, you can’t help but find them pretty adorable. In Pacific culture the kakamora are known as little creatures that live in the forests and in caves. You could basically think of them as small personifications of Mother Nature as they are believed to guard the forests, and they have little love for humans — stories tell us that they are even believed to eat human beings when they’re peckish.

Moana vs. Te Kā

Moana is our heroine in Disney’s epic animated feature, whilst Te Kā is the giant, fiery villain. Whilst these two characters are very much creations of Disney, they too have some basis in ancient myth. The battle between fire and water is an elemental struggle that stretches far back into the past. Fire and water are two opposites that can be used in the most basic way to define opposing sides. In kids’ movies you need to make the good guy and the bad guy easy to differentiate between — 4-year-old children can be so unreliable at picking up subtle nuances sometimes — and Moana and Te Kā fill these roles perfectly. These two characters and their struggle against each other is very similar to that of Pele (goddess of fire and lava) and Nāmaka (goddesses of the sea). In the Hawaiian legends, the sea goddess eventually beats the fire goddess after a long drawn out battle, but some Hawaiians still believe that the battle continues on the islands to this day.


Tamatoa is — in our humble opinions — perhaps the best character in the film. He is the giant crab that lives in the underworld, and he and Maui battle it out when Maui is trying to retrieve his lost hook from the enormous crustacean. The character is voiced by the incomparable Jermaine Clement — one half of the brilliant Flight of the Conchords.

Whilst the character is entirely fictional, it’s interesting to note that the name Tamatoa actually means “trophy” in the Maori language. This is very apt because Tamatoa is all about collecting treasure and souvenirs from the people he has defeated.

The are a few other interesting aspects of this film that have their origin in Maori and Pacific culture. The heart of Te Fiti is a greenstone — or pounamu — and is basically the whole reason that Moana sets off on her epic quest in the first place. You might even spot a few more things we missed when you see the movie!

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