Moana – Why Dubbing is the Worst Thing

The first teaser for Moana, the upcoming animated movie by Disney is here! It’s also the time that we learn of the German title of the movie. And it speaks volumes at about how little the German distributor cares about the heritage the movie is entrenched in.

The demi-God Māui (Dwayne Johnson aka. The Rock) is walking on Earth. There he meets the beautiful Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is not just really pretty, but also a kickass navigator of a sailboat in the South Pacific. She’s looking for a fabled island and for that, she teams up with Māui.

That’s all we know so far about the plot of Moana, a movie that will open in cinemas around Christmas time.

Beautiful, right?

And notice all the unfamiliar-sounding names? And the fact that they specify who contributed to the soundtrack and they’re all names most of us have probably never heard of? That’s because Disney is trying to get the movie as entrenched in Polynesian culture as possible. Unless if you’re German, then you may shit all over heritage.

A Love Letter to Polynesia

The directors of the movie, John Musker and Ron Clements, undertook several lengthy trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti and studied the culture there in depth. And then they went one step further.

Where other directors would just have decided to whitewash the entire cast – whitewashing being a term used to describe the casting of Caucasian actors for roles that are not Caucasian – they hired Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho to star in the movie.

Social network tumblr where the world’s social justice warriors appear to flock was at first upset that the role of Māui was cast with a Caucasian actor. It wasn’t until about five minutes later – an eternity in Internet time – that someone has looked into the biography of Dwayne Johnson and discovered that the actor was of Samoan descent and not, as assumed for five minutes, a tanned white guy.


Māui (Dwayne Johnson) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) will be Disney’s stars around Christmas

This continued throughout the production of the movie. Whenever something came up that would have been valid criticism regarding Moana, its production and casting or anything really, someone discovered that the makers of the movie took care of it in the most awesome way possible, adding mythology, cultural aspects and just never making a big deal out of it. All in all, Disney rocked this show.

The Germans Ruin Everything

Today, in my inbox, there was a mail announcing the teaser trailer for Vaiana, the latest Disney movie.

Wait… What?

Alright, allow me to digress for a second.

A number of years ago – must have been around 2006 –, I read an article about a Swiss farmer who went to Polynesia and got some tattoos after living with a tribe of islanders for a number of years, marrying one of their women and integrating into the culture. Apparently, it was a lengthy procedure, all handmade without any machines used. It took over the course of a few consecutive days. Without a break. It could have been in the publication known as Tagi Magi.

It was a fascinating article that mentioned at some point that the Polynesian alphabet had about half the letters the European one has. Being fascinated with languages, I researched this.

So Hawaiian, also known as ka pīʻāpā Hawaiʻi has thirteen letters. The ones used by the Māori, officially called the Te Pū Taka Māori, has seventeen letters.

  • ka pīʻāpā Hawaiʻi: ‘ā, ‘ē, ‘ī, ‘ō, ‘ū, hē, kē, lā, mū, nū, pī, wē, ʻokina
  • Te Pū Taka Māori: a, e, h, i, k, m, n, ng, o, p, r, t, u, w, wh

There are a number of diphthongs and other specialties in there. And this ends my digression.

Why is this important? Simple? Because if you look closely, you will realize that one letter is conspicuously absent. In fact, an entire family of sounds is absent. No clue yet? Alright, listen to the sounds in this Hawaiian news segment. I’m going with Hawaii, because Maui is a Hawaiian island as well as a main character of the movie.

There are no F or V sounds in Hawaiian. In fact, from the sound of it, there appears to be only a passing existence of the fricative, which is the technical term for the sound family, the letters F and V belong to.

Vaiana has one of these sounds.

It gets even better. The letter V was explicitly erased from the Hawaiian language in 1826 because it was deemed redundant.

In other news, Moana means ocean in Hawaiian. Vaiana means… nothing. Well done, Germans, well done.

But hold it, it’s not only the Germans. The French apparently also are guilty of the same nonsense.

I get it, sometimes titles need to be adapted for other languages, because the natives of another language might have issues with the proper pronunciation of the movie’s title. Or they wouldn’t grasp the concept that a title would like to get across. However, Moana is not that difficult. I’m not aware of any connotations in the German or French language and I’m fluent in both.

So it remains unclear as to why the name of the main heroine had to be changed for the German and French releases. If you know why that happened, let me know in a comment.

Why It Might Not Be that Bad But Totally Is

Maybe the change ends up making sense. While the fricative issue still persists mostly, the name Vaiana could exist. Or could have. Because as I mentioned above, the letter V was eliminated from the language in 1826. If the movie is set before 1826, then there’s a chance that the name might exist.

This is shit.

I’m not upset about this because this is cultural appropriation or whatever the hell else the social justice warriors want to throw around this week. This is because the makers of this movie put research into this film, they cared about the culture this movie is rooted in and did everything right. Moana is not just a word in Hawaiian, but also the name of a princely line of Hawaiian descent known as the House of Moana. Their altering the name feels like a direct and deliberate attempt to fix something that was not broken. Something that the writers of this movie took great care to not break. The Germans betrayed a culture, a language and a team of dedicated moviemakers by just deciding that they needed a new title for reasons unknown.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.


  1. This link has the answer to your question:
    I also wanted to know why, and after a little googling I found your article and the answer, so I decided to share. I understand why they had to change it, but I bet the dubbers cared more about it rhyming with the original instead of choosing another significant name with the right sound for the culture they’re representing. Sad indeed.

  2. According to my research, “Vaiana” is Tahitian for “water from the cave.” Now, I know you went with Hawaii for analyzing why the name is problematic, but the directors of the film have not been ultra-specific about which culture the film is focusing on. As far as everyone is concerned, she’s just the “Polynesian” princess. Some Pacific Islander people have said that the movie looks like it has influences from different Polynesian cultures, including Samoan, and Tongan. Tahiti is also a part of Polynesia, so it’s not too much of a culturally insensitive thing to name the movie Vaiana. I personally think Vaiana is a much prettier name than Moana, but to each their own.

  3. Is it just me, or is it getting a bit old to have female main characters in animation all have the same face shape? Studios exaggerate male faces all the time. It starts setting the the example to little girls that all females have should theses portotrions. It’s starts becoming the ideal/standard.

  4. No offence but I think the title o this article is misleading. Dubbing and changing names are two different things. The title should be “why changing names is the worst thing.

  5. They changed the name of the movie cause there was a italien porn actress called Moana and she copyrighted her name.

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