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In New Zealand, a Translated ‘Moana’ Bolsters an Indigenous Language

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The families lined up at the theater above a shopping mall here in New Zealand’s biggest city and filed past posters for Stephen King’s “It” and “Captain Underpants” for a film unlike any they had ever seen — the Disney hit “Moana,” translated into the indigenous language of New Zealand.

“Kei te pehea koe?” said the ticket taker, Jane Paul, greeting groups of children with a phrase meaning, “How are you?”

“Are you Maori too?” one girl asked.

About 125,000 of New Zealand’s 4.7 million people speak the Maori language, or “te reo Māori,” as it is widely rendered here. There are concerns that numbers are declining, putting it at risk of dying out. But with one in three Maori people in New Zealand younger than 15, experts said the chance for youth to see a wildly popular movie in their own words could turn the language’s fortunes around after more official efforts faltered.

“The language has got to be made cool and sexy and relevant to young people, and this movie is the perfect way to make that happen,” said Haami Piripi, a former head of the government body charged with promoting te reo Māori as a living language.

Taika Waititi, a New Zealand writer and director who worked on the original English-language version of “Moana,” also approached Disney early on about translating the film, and his sister, Tweedie Waititi, went on to produce the translated version.

The film was screened free at 30 theaters around New Zealand at the end of the annual Maori language week. It did not have English subtitles, but screenings were fully booked within 30 minutes, leading to plans in at least one town for additional showings.

Many of those attending in Manukau, in southern Auckland, said they had never seen a film at the theater entirely in their language before.

…Parents entering the theater said they relished the chance for their children to see themselves and their language reflected on the big screen, in a different kind of story that they hoped would instill pride in being Maori.

Most of the efforts to revitalize the language that have worked so far, he added, have been initiated by protest or court action. But Mr. Piripi said the film “Moana reo Māori” had given him hope there was another way: making the language “cool, relevant and useful” to young Maori.

“There’s no other film in the Maori language that would attract whanau and kids like that,” he said, using the word for families.

The entire process, including translation, recording the voices and mixing the sound, happened over three months.

Katarina Edmonds, a senior lecturer in Maori education at the University of Auckland, and one of three people who translated the film, said the team worked not only to find the exact equivalents of words in the Disney script, but also to remain true to the Maori language and tikanga, or cultural values.

Some moments of the film posed a challenge; Moana raging at the ocean, for example, contravened a Maori cultural rule to never curse or turn one’s back on the sea, so they turned it into a more humorous moment using careful wordplay.

At the same time, Ms. Edmonds said, the translation gave the film a uniquely Maori flavor of humor, while staying true to the spirit of the original script.

Rachel House, a New Zealand actor who voiced the character Gramma Tala in both the English and Maori versions of the film — and who was also the performance director of the Maori production — said she had been blown away by the response to the film, and the 30 theaters that screened it free.

“I’ve been on a very slow journey with the language for years, and now I feel like I can sit back and really enjoy the film, and experience the learning tool that it represents,” she said.

In Manukau, most families left the theater beaming. Many said they were eager to buy a DVD of the film, which is expected sometime in the next few months.

Desiree Tipene, 30, said that having grown up with immersion schooling, she was determined to give her children a similar experience — for a sense of identity and spiritual connection. She described “Moana” as a “funny and beautiful” way for her four children to connect with their culture.

“I just enjoy our language being spoken,” she said.