An adventurous young girl sets out with a demi-god to solve the mystery of her people in Moana, the upcoming film from Disney Animation. It sounds like a simple story, but as directors Ron Clements and John Musker can tell you, putting it on-screen is anything but simple.
Earlier this summer, we visited Disney and talked to Clements and Musker about the history of Moana, the incredibly complex process of making it, and the challenges of bringing the culture and the folklore of the South Pacific to life—along with the dumbest Disney character ever.
“In order to know where you’re going, you need to know where you come from.” It was a sentiment the people of the South Pacific impressed upon the filmmakers and is also echoed in Disney culture itself. Research and preparation are everything. So, various teams who’d be working on the film took three trips to islands like Fiji, Bora Bora, Tahiti, Samoa, and others to soak up as much as possible. The first trip was a general one in October 2011. Music and culture were the focus of a March 2014 trip, and then visuals were the focus of a third trip in November 2014.
“In Tahiti, one of the elders said ‘We’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time, can you be swallowed by our culture?’” explained Clements. “We took that very seriously.” To make sure their film was bound to history and culture, the filmmakers recruited a team of local experts nicknamed “The Oceanic Story Trust.” The group advised on the story, names, dialogue, and cultural references, and made sure Moana was staying true to the ideals and customs of the South Pacific. “They know so much and we felt a responsibility to them,” said Musker. “[We kept] them involved so we can keep this right.”
Moana is set 2,000 years ago. At that time in actual history, the people of the South Pacific were the greatest explorers on Earth. Using only stars and currents, they accomplished some of the greatest feats of exploration and migration in history. Then, one day, it stopped for 1,000 years. No one knows why. Clements and Musker thought coming up with a story to explain why the exploration stopped would be fertile, and the idea of finding your way mirrored the journey of the young girl at the center of their story.
The hero of the story is Moana, a young girl voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho. We meet Moana as a young child, where her sense of adventure instantly makes her an ally and friend of the ocean, which is literally a character in the film. It plays with her, interacts with her, cradles her, becomes familiar shapes and helps her as she grows into a teenager and sets off on her journey. It’s much like the water alien in The Abyss, but a bit more heart-warming. By the way, Moana actually means “ocean” in Maori.
The second lead of the film is Maui, a demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson. Like Cravalho and all the leads of the film, Johnson has Pacific Island roots. As for Maui, he’s an actual legend of a powerful god who carries a magical fish hook that helped raise the islands of the South Pacific from the ocean. Clements and Musker took a bunch of the ancient mythology about who Maui was, and created the Disney amalgamation.
Much like Little Mermaid and Aladdin before it, Ron Clements and John Musker wanted Moana to be a musical. And so it is, with music by Opetaia Foa’i, the founder of the popular contemporary Pacific band Te Vaka, Mark Mancina (Speed, Bad Boys, Lion King), and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter being the award-winning creator and star of Hamilton. What’s interesting about Miranda’s inclusion, though, is he came on very early in the process, long before Hamilton became a cultural phenomenon. But by the time it did, he would Skype into Disney from backstage on Broadway, sometimes in full costume.
Disney Animated films go through dozens and dozens of versions before you see them on screen. But they have to start somewhere, and for Moana, the filmmakers turned to New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi for the first draft. Waititi is best known for starring in and directing What We Do in the Shadows and he’s currently directing Thor: Ragnarok. While much of his dialogue is no longer in the film, the directors admitted some of his major beats and ideas were kept in.
The filmmakers expect Hei Hei, a sidekick rooster character, to be one of the breakouts from the film. But he was almost cut out. After several story meetings, the producers and directors didn’t think Hei Hei added to the story. So John Lasseter gave the writers 48 hours to figure out how to save him, or he was out. The result was taking a character that was kind of macho and dropping his IQ exponentially. They now surmise Hei Hei is literally the dumbest character in Disney history, and because of that, he’s not just a friend of Moana, he’s a complication. And that kept him in the movie.
Another sure to be breakout character in the film is dubbed Mini Maui. It’s one of Maui’s tattoos, of himself, and the character serves as the real Maui’s conscience. He runs around Maui’s body, communicates with him non-verbally, and was created with traditional 2D animation. He was hand-drawn, then imported into the computer so he’d fit into the world but have a standout look.
Besides just Mini Maui, all of Maui’s tattoos are an important part of the story and character. They immortalize his exploits, as each tattoo tells a part of Maui’s backstory, with Mini Maui at the center. Visually, this looks very cool but technically, the animators found it extremely difficult because they were animating on skin, which itself is also a moving, breathing surface.
Besides the magic fish hook and moving tattoos, Maui has another power. He transforms. He becomes a hawk, a shark, a bug, and more, making him quite a formidable ally for Moana on her quest to solve the mystery of her people. Again, though, animating a human who seamlessly morphs into an animal was a challenge for Disney Animation, as it’s not something they usually do.
Looking like a blend of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy and the Balrog from Lord of the Rings, the lava guardian Teka is one of the villains of Moana. He’s an ancient being who is after the Heart of the Ocean, a crucial piece of the story which Maui stole centuries ago and Moana must find again. Each time Teka is in a shot, there are about 10 layers of animation happening simultaneously: fire, smoke, water splashes, and more.
When you’re making a Disney Animation movie, the process starts slow but then gets very, very fast. The story team said that at times later in the production, they found themselves only a few hours ahead of animation. Meaning, they were finishing dialogue and story that would then immediately go to animation. The shortest window they could recall was five hours between the departments.
At one point in the film, Moana and Maui encounter the Kakamora, a creepy group of characters who are kind of like walking coconuts. They travel on massive, massive boats and chase Maui and Moana. The visual effect of the characters hanging all over them, in a chase scene, was absolutely inspired by the visuals and actions of Mad Max: Fury Road, according to Clements and Musker.
One of the most impressive things about Disney Animation is how every movie they make couldn’t have been made a few years before. As software and hardware advances, the production is constantly pushing what’s available to its absolute limit. For example, Moana is 80 percent visual effects shots. Compare that to the recent Big Hero 6, which was less than 50 percent. Most of those effects are water, one of the hardest things there is to animate, and the effects team admitted this movie could not have been processed five years ago. Technologically, it just couldn’t happen.
Moana will premiere on November 23.