Ron Clements and John Musker’s directorial debut was The Great Mouse Detective, but it was 1989’s The Little Mermaid that made these best friends animation legends. “The sea called us back,” Musker reflected at a press conference for their newest animated masterpiece, Moana. But things are different this time around, with the ocean becoming a sort of character in and of itself.
“I think even five years ago, it would have been very hard to do,” explains Ron Clements. “When we were on the islands, people talked about the ocean as if it were alive. And they had these personal relationships with it; they caressed it. We knew we wanted to have the ocean as a character in the movie.” Thanks to technological advances, they were able to bring their vision to life.
For producer Osnat Shurer, the decision to join the Moana project came from her passion for honoring and respecting the Pacific Island culture. From Maui’s tattoos to the choreography in the film, everything pertaining to the Oceanic people was brought before a story trust for guidance and approval. And it was Shurer whose research lead her to a Pacific Island band called Te Vaka and its lead singer/songwriter, Opetaia Foa’i.
“Very early on, when we visited the islands we heard music and it was really part of the culture. We knew we really wanted music to be part of the story and we wanted to even underscore the movie to feature vocals in another language,” explains Clements. “We wanted island music with a narrative drive,” adds Musker. “And we met Lin [Manuel Miranda] in New York before Hamilton was even staged, three years ago. There was a slightly conscious effort in terms of The Lion King, the way they wove music together with other languages and English. Mark Mancina from a world music standpoint was able to pull together Elton John and Lebo M. and sort of make them live in the same world. We thought that Mark could help with Lin and Opetaia to fuse them into one thing.”
“When I first interviewed for this job, I came into a room with Ron and John, makers of my favorite Disney film of all time,” Miranda explains with the enthusiasm of the biggest Disney fan. “And I said ‘You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room!’ And I think I scared them a little bit because I quoted some obscure section of The Little Mermaid that they didn’t even remember.”
Lin Manuel Miranda was offered the job the same day he found out he would be a father. “With my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand,” recalls Miranda. After meeting with Opetaia Foa’i, the pair went to a Pacific Music Festival where Lin beat Opetaia at a dance competition before the two went to work on their first jam session. “The first time I sat at my piano to work on something for this film, I remember thinking ‘Don’t think about “Let It Go,” don’t think about “Let It Go.” But you solve that problem by getting inside the head of your characters. My way into Moana was the way she feels the call of the sea is the way I feel abut writing music.”
Lin Manuel Miranda didn’t initially plan a song for Dwayne Johnson, but on their first meeting, “The Rock” asked where his song was. Using YouTube videos of Johnson singing during his WWE days, he was able to determine Johnson’s vocal range to create the cocky ditty, “You’re Welcome.” “It was an opportunity to challenge myself,” Johnson recalls. “It was one of the best times I’ve had in my career.” In response, John Musker mused “Dwayne is the new Angela Lansbury.”
Due to Hamilton production ramping up right around the same time, Lin often had to communicate via video conference with the Disney team in California, sometimes right before a show in his costume. “It was an island of peace when Hamilton stuff started getting crazy,” he recalls. The soundtrack will be available soon and diehard Hamilton fans are encouraged to pay the extra money for the deluxe edition, which features demo recordings on its bonus disc. “We had the most awesome demos,” Osnat Shurer jokes, “because it was the cast of Hamilton.” “Phillipa Soo was singing my demos, Chris Jackson was singing my demos,” Miranda jokes. “I had the best singers in my band and I would just say ‘Come to my dressing room and sing this!’”
“That was my scratch voice! Do you have any idea how scary that was?” Jokes Auli’i Cravalho, a first time actress who voices Moana. “This is my first job. This has been an incredible journey for me, I’m 15 going on 16 and working with the best people in the entire world who are making a film inspired by my culture. A culture I have lived every day of my life; something that’s so incredibly special for the rest of the world to see.”
“For me personally, my journey has been from the village to the city,” Opetaia Foa’i says. He hopes that when his people see Moana, the opposite will happen. “Polynesians who were born in the city will now be encouraged to journey back to the villages.”
“Before I was working on this film, I was a bit wary of it,” remembers Auli’i. “Because when anyone thinks of making a film inspired by their culture, they want it to be done right. And Disney has done a wonderful job. I’m excited for my people to see it and for everyone else as well and I hope they’re inspired to research our culture because it’s awesome.”
Dwayne Johnson adds to the conversation. “There was some resistance from a lot of people in our culture. I can tell you with great confidence that our experience has been that we’re in such great hands. I can tell you that John Lasseter has mana in his soul, in his body. This was a very important project to him. I feel like Polynesian people are going to be incredibly proud of the movie.” Dwayne Johnson truly believes that Moana captures the “Aloha spirit” and I hope that you have a chance to experience it for yourself this holiday season.