Directors Ron Clements and John Musker made sure that everything in their new animated film “Moana” was as near perfection as possible. From the smallest blade of grass to a mountain of lava, it had to be right.
The real pressure came in creating the character of Moana. She’s not only the star of the animated movie based on Polynesian mythology, but she also joins the royal court of Disney princesses. Moana will be seen everywhere from lunch box covers to appearances at the company’s theme parks.
“We spent the most time working on getting her right,” Clements says of the project that was five years in the making.
Bringing a new character to life is a long process in which every word is diagnosed, every color discussed and every motion debated. That process starts with an idea that came from John Lassiter, chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios.
Lassiter wanted to do a movie on the world of the Pacific Islands and its mythology. He turned to Clements and Musker – whose past work includes “The Little Mermaid,” “Hercules” and “Aladdin” – to make the film.
The directors took trips to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti, where they found the material for the script in navigation stories, people’s connection to their ancestry and their respect for nature.
Their story looks at a young girl, Moana (Auli’l Cravalho), who must defy her parents to help save her island. She turns to a demigod, Maui (Dwayne Johnson), for assistance.
The next step was to find the right voice for Moana. Providing the vocals for Moana is the first acting job for Cravalho. The Hawaii native grew up in a small town and attended an all-Hawaiian school, where the folklore of Maui is part of the curriculum.
Cravalho calls becoming the voice of Moana an incredible journey.
“I’m 15 going on 16. I’m working with the best people in the entire world, who are making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life and that is something so incredibly special for the rest of the world to see,” Cravalho says. “For me, as someone who is hoping to continue in show business, I was wondering, how would I continue in this and still be Polynesian?
“As I continue in this and as I potentially might leave my home, what does that make me? Does that still keep me Polynesian? Am I still grounded and rooted in the way that I want to be? And I can honestly say yes.”
These questions are the kind Cravalho wants those who see the movie to ask about themselves. She wants Moana to be an inspiration to others to become rooted in who they truly are.
Clements and Musker needed one last element to bring their character to life – the right music. They turned to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the monster Broadway hit “Hamilton,” to create the music. Both directors are proud to point out that they approached Miranda before “Hamilton” opened.
Miranda worked with Hawaiian songwriter/musician Opetaia Foa’i to give the soundtrack an authentic sound. They understood the importance of being part of the creation of the next major figure in the Disney universe. Miranda said he also easily related to having a dream and trying to make it come true.
“You want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions. At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world,” Miranda says. “My way into Moana, in particular, was the way she feels the call of the sea. I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large, so I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.”
That approach let Miranda help Clements and Musker add another jewel to the Disney animation crown.