The power of seeing yourself on-screen is a real, tangible thing. The power of hearing yourself and the language of your people on-screen? A power double whammy, to say the least. In the realm of animation, it’s something that is only just beginning to happen thanks to the first Indigenous animated children’s series Little J & Big Cuz (2017–present) and Disney’s Polynesian princess Moana (2016).
Not only are the characters at the centre of these narratives representing children who rarely see a version of themselves mirrored in the content they consume, they’re being voiced by performers who come from those same backgrounds and are shining a light on traditional languages in pop culture.
Debuting on NITV and ABC in 2017, Little J & Big Cuz was the brainchild of filmmaker Tony Thorne and was nominated for a Logie Award for Most Outstanding Children’s Program in 2018. “Directing and designing Little J & Big Cuz was a unique challenge and required a new approach to children’s television in Australia,” Thorne said. “Never before has an Australian animated show targeted an Indigenous audience. As an Indigenous person this seemed wrong.”
The series, which is now heading into its second season, has also been translated into six languages including Djambarrpuyngu, Pitjantjatjara, Palawa Kani, Arrernte, Walmajarri and Yawuru. In the case of Palawa Kani, the language was reconstructed through consultation with community and incorporating several dialectics existing within Tasmania. For the actors and actresses bringing the characters to life with their vocal performances, the significance of Little J & Big Cuz is profound.
“It’s really important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids to see themselves reflected on screens, in positive and complex characters,” said Miranda Tapsell – who voices Little J – in an interview with Screen Australia. “I wish we had Little J & Big Cuz when I was growing up.”
An integral element of the series is the visual language, which Thorne wanted to engage his young audience but also draw from traditional inspirations. “Colour in the landscape was a crucial part of designing a recognisably Australian setting and for this I looked to artists like Albert Namatjira,” he said. “The home and school environments had much Indigenous input to give a believable contemporary feel, and for detail in the landscapes native vegetation was always referenced. A design style of flat colours with outlines and crucially, shadows, became the look for the show. I aimed to make the large expanses and the intimate spaces, like the backyard, recognisable to an Aboriginal kid in a remote community as much as a kid in an outer suburb of a big city.”
One of the most mainstream and successful examples of animation being translated into language is Disney’s Moana (2016). The film’s central plot is an amalgamation of Polynesian myths and legends, incorporating stories from more than 1000 different islands and dominant cultures. Those of the Māori people are key among them, with prominent Māori creatives involved in the movie such as filmmaker Taika Waititi, who consulted on story elements, Jemaine Clement who voiced the David Bowie-esque Tamatoa, Rachel House as Moana’s grandmother, Temuera Morrison as Chief Tui, and several members of the Oceanic music group Te Vaka, who worked on the soundtrack. To align with Māori Language Week, a version of Moana that was translated into te reo – the native language of the Māori people – was released in more than 30 cinemas across New Zealand and screened for free. It was a significant feat, with the animated blockbuster entirely rerecorded following a pitch to Disney by Waititi. The translated version was produced by filmmaker Chelsea Winstanley and Waititi’s sister Tweedie, and directed by Rachel House (who also reprised her role of grandmother Tala).
Characters were recast with Māori performers, including Moana who was originally voiced – and sung – by Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho. Then 16-year-old Jaedyn Randell brought Moana’s Māori voice to life, along with Māori Television's Te Kāea presenter Piripi Taylor who stepped into Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s shoes as Maui. “I work with te reo Māori every day and most of the core cast don't get that opportunity so for them to commit to this project and step out and give te reo Māori a go is a real testament for me to how our views towards te reo Māori being embraced a lot more now,” Taylor told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) about the importance of a te reo Moana. "There are teachings about waka, ocean voyaging and celestial navigation and the science behind the stories of Maui and we are trying to maintain these teachings with te reo, it's about showing our tamariki how tangible these teachings are." One of the most enduring parts of any Disney animated film is the soundtrack, with Moana’s also translated into te reo and released on iTunes, physically, and available on streaming services internationally.
“A lot has been said lately about representation on film and I think it’s going to be really cool for Polynesian kids to see some Polynesians heroes,” Jemaine Clement said in an interview with Junkee. “I know that some [Polynesians] think it’s really cool, and some will be watching it with crossed arms going ‘okay, let’s see how they do this’. Even when Taika (Waititi) and I did our Maui play — a lot of Māori films and plays are very serious and we were doing something that wasn’t — it had a lot of jokes in it. At first when they heard we were doing a comedy about Maui they were suspicious, they were telling us we shouldn’t do it. And then when we did it, those exact same people were like ‘this is the kind of thing we should be doing’.”