Disney embraces indigenous peoples and their stories

By Aroha Awarau

They have given the world Mickey Mouse and Moana. Now, Disney studio has taken a strong stance on treating indigenous stories in a respectful way and it should encourage other film companies to follow suit, the chair of a Māori screen industry group says.

This week, it was revealed that the Hollywood powerhouse agreed in writing to respectfully portray the Finno-Ugric indigenous Sami tribe in the sequel to Frozen, a film that earned more than $1 billion at the international box office.

“They’re saying that we have to get culture and cultural aspects right and that’s sending out a huge message to the world. It’s no longer good enough to have a brown person in front of the camera and no support behind them,” Hineani Melbourne, producer and chair of Ngā Aho Whakaari says.

Disney’s latest effort to consult with indigenous cultures is a growing trend within the company, who also own Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm and have the Star Wars and The Avengers films in their stable.

Frozen, about two sisters who reign over a fictional Norwegian kingdom, is the second highest-grossing animated film of all time, just below The Lion King. Its sequel, released in the US this week, is already breaking US box office records.

The Frozen films have characters and scenes inspired by the Sami culture. Disney also consulted closely with Pacific Island nations while making Moana and the Mexican community for Coco

In their written agreement with the Sami people, Disney agreed to also produce a dubbed version of Frozen II in the Sami language, similar to their commitment to produce Māori, Tahitian and Hawai'ian versions of Moana.

Melbourne says if the biggest movie studio in the world can commit in writing to telling indigenous stories in a respectful way, then companies in Aotearoa should follow suit.

“Screen viewers are well informed now. They know what is not authentic. Māori stories, or a film about Māori, has to have key Māori creatives on board. We as Māori in the screen industry really want them to work with Māori who know the language, who know the culture.”

In 2017, Māori Television spoke to renowned US film director Ava DuVernay, who was in the South Island filming Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. She said Disney had drastically changed their attitude on race. Many of their earlier films portrayed negative cultural stereotypes, especially of African-Americans.

“The representations for people of colour in films, the legacy is abhorrent. Hollywood has not been kind. But that is several generations ago. The question and the challenge to the modern Hollywood is, how do we do better? So I applaud Disney, I feel like it’s a studio that’s not doing token work around people of colour.”

Frozen II opens in New Zealand on Thursday.