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Moana & Maui from the Disney film | © Brenda Rochelle / Flickr
Moana & Maui from the Disney film | © Brenda Rochelle / Flickr | © Brenda Rochelle / Flickr

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

Picture of Joe Coates
Updated: 5 April 2018
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.


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.”