Moana is the first Polynesian Princess to join the Disney ohana. Director and Producer team Ron Clements and John Musker (Littler Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) were joined by screenwriter Jared Bush (Zootopia), co-head of Animation Amy Smeed (Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6), and producer Osnat Shurer (Pixar shorts) on the “Moana: Art of Story” panel July 21, 2016 at San Diego Comic Con.
In part one of this article, we learned about the story of Moana, as she set off on an epic journey to save her people from the darkness caused by Maui. We also learned about the research that directors Ron and John did to create an authentic Polynesian story.
In this article, we will explore the main characters in depth, as well as the authentic Polynesian details that truly distinguish this film.
Maui is the demi-god of the wind and the sea, self-dubbed the “greatest demi-god in all the Pacific Islands” and the “hero of man.”
Maui is a shape shifter, and wields his magical fishhook: ‘he slowed down the sun, pulled islands out of the sea, battled monsters.’ He has a bit of an ego too, carving his autograph on canoe paddles with a heart and a hook.
All this does not impress Moana, as she is on a quest to get Maui to restore the heart of ‘Te Fiki.’ Maui is surprised to find that he is inadvertently the ‘bad guy.’ By stealing the heart of ‘Te Fiki,’ he had caused a darkness to spread across the seas.
Maui goes shirtless through the film, which made modeling accurate muscle movements an important aspect of his character development. He sports tribal tattoos all over his body that “tell of his exploits.” He literally can “give you his backstory” says producer Shurer.
“Mini Maui,” one of his tattoos, is also a star. Mini Maui was a 2D drawn character animated by the illustrious Eric Goldberg (Genie from Aladdin), mapped onto the 3D Maui. This presented its own set of animation challenges. This is Ron and John’s first 3D animated feature.
Maui is voiced by none other than Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (Furious 7, Central Intelligence). The role was actually written with him in mind, admits producer Shurer, since “he’s a bit of a demi-god himself.” She describes how there were lots of offers to bring coffee the days Johnson was in the studio. He was “one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with,” Shurer recalls.
Dwayne Johnson is proud of his half-Samoan ancestry (his mother is Samoan). Despite his tough-guy image, Johnson gives a tender musical performance written especially for him by songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tony Award winner, Hamilton). He was “excited about singing a song” for the film, and “had a great time performing it.”
Moana’s tale is a “hero’s journey…a coming of age” story, describes John Musker. Unlike other Princess stories, there is no romance involved. She is a “fantastic role model for young girls.” The journey is about “finding your voice…and listening to your inner self.” Ron Clements adds, “and not to let anyone define you.”
Moana is brave and empowered, not afraid to pursue her dreams. She embodies kuleana, (Hawaiian word for duty, responsibility). She “wants to be who the people need her to be” and stays true to herself in the process.
Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana, embodies so many of the Polynesian Princess’ qualities. Although the character design for Moana was entirely separate from the casting, Auli’i looks so much like her character. This was a match made in Disney heaven.
Bubbling with joy, Auli’i shows grace and poise beyond her 15 years. She is clearly comfortable with directors Ron and John, and even engages in friendly banter with them during the panel.
Auli’i Cravalho is of native Hawaiian ancestry, from Mililani, Oahu. She was discovered, as the last young lady, on the last day of auditions for the title role. Casting director Rachel Sutton remembered a video of Auli’i singing for a charity fundraiser and had encouraged her to audition.
When Auli’i announces “I am Moana,” she joins a distinguished list of Disney royalty (with Disney’s picturesque Aulani resort as the backdrop).
She admitted to having a blast on her first visit to Disneyland a few months ago, when she met up with other Disney Princesses who welcomed her to the ‘sorority.’
Auli’i notes that while Moana is a strong female character, the film is not just for young girls. “Everyone is going on a Journey. Everyone can relate to it.” It is a story of “passion, determination, strength and courage.”
Pua the pig – ‘cutest animal’ Disney has ever created. The animation team showed a ‘calisthenic test’ that put Pua through various movements to prove that the character could convey emotion. Pua was a definite crowd favorite.
Hei Hei the rooster (Alan Tudyk, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Rogue One) – described as the ‘dumbest character’ Disney has ever created, to create comic relief. Originally smart and devious (Hei Hei was shown in a screen test stealing food from Pua), the story team felt that Hei Hei worked better with a much lower IQ.
Exploring Moana’s Polynesian Inspiration
All the ‘tough’ research done while visiting Hawaii, Tahiti, and Fiji created an authenticity in the details captured by Disney’s animation team. Be sure to look for these quality Polynesian-inspired characteristics throughout the film:
- The title design for Moana incorporates the Maori symbol “Koru,” the spiral. Koru symbolizes new beginnings and new growth, representing the unfurling of new fern fronds.
- The M and A characters in Moana resemble Polynesian Hale (HAH-lay), or homes.
- The Fish Hook is symbolic throughout Polynesia, as fishing is essential to survival for these cultures. The fish hook symbolizes strength and prosperity, and is considered protective when traveling over water.
- Tattoos are deeply meaningful and tribal in Polynesian culture; they are not just decorative. Native artists specialize in telling stories through tattoos, of which Maui has many.
- In the teaser trailer, Maui performs a Haka, a tribal ceremonial dance performed notably by the native Maori of New Zealand. Today, the Haka is commonly used to intimidate opponents in sports (University of Hawaii Football, All Blacks Rubgy team).
- Maui wears a traditional necklace of shark’s teeth and carved bone on braided cord.
- Moana wears of necklace of pearls and mother-of-pearl, with designs evoking coral and ocean waves.
- Polynesians developed the Outrigger Canoe, more balanced than a regular canoe. Ancient Polynesian voyagers used star navigation to bring plants and animals thousands of miles across the oceans to populate the islands of Polynesia.
- Canoe paddles are as important as the canoes. Paddles figure prominently in Moana’s story.
- Characters in the film wear clothing made of traditional Kapa cloth, pounded plant fibers made into fabric with traditional stamped symbols and designs.
Moana promises to be a cinematically gorgeous film, sweeping across exotic South Pacific islands. Mahalo (thank you) to Disney for staying true to authentic Polynesian details, and creating a strong heroine role model. We look forward to joining Moana and Maui on their quest to save her people on November 23rd, 2016.
What are you most excited to see in this film?
Gloria Hasler is a freelance travel writer and photographer. She is a professional travel consultant, owner of Chrysalis Travel, and – together with her husband – co-founder of the Six Castles Club.