“Do You Know Who You Are?” Directors David Derrick Jr. and Jason Hand Discuss the Themes of “Moana 2” in Annecy Festival Interview

On June 14th, Walt Disney Animation Studios helped bring this year’s Annecy Festival to a close with a first-look at Moana 2, unveiling new plot details and characters for the highly anticipated sequel. Directors David Derrick Jr. and Jason Hand hosted the presentation, addressing an audience comprised of animation students and telling the story of their own journey from story artists to directors. After the presentation, I had the honor of talking to David and Jason about how their own leadership journeys have informed Moana 2, balancing fan expectations with the needs of the story, and more.

(Annecy Festival/F. Murarotto/Disney)

(Annecy Festival/F. Murarotto/Disney)

Alex: You just presented a first look at Moana 2 to a packed house at Annecy Festival, and the crowd went wild. How are you both feeling coming off of that stage?

David Derrick Jr.: Grateful. We rehearsed, but we had to wait for applause, which we're not used to. It's wonderful to see the enthusiasm that exists. I mean, we know people love Moana, but to see people face to face and see the exuberance and enthusiasm, it's amazing.

Jason Hand: Yeah, people seem excited to see what we're cooking up for her. Honestly, that was amazing.

Alex: The place was definitely buzzing with excitement. You both worked on the story for the first film and now you’re directing. Was there anything you learned on the first film that helped prepare you for this role?

Jason Hand: I worked on the first film for basically the last year [of production]. I was desperate to work on it because I love the world. I fell in love with those characters. I love Moana, Maui, and the ocean. I thought it was such a magical combination. As we were making this story, I was looking to continue those characters forward. What I learned was it's about who these characters are in the journey they're taking. Honestly, it just seems to be the answers are always there.

David Derrick Jr.: I was very emotionally invested in that first film. I came to Disney to work on Moana. [Jason] and I would always try to beat each other into work. I'd been on Moana pretty much the whole run, and then [Jason] came on towards the end. I was like, who’s this guy who’s showing up early, too? And it's because we really cared that much. It was one of those things where I was like, I don't want any regrets because I don't know when I'll have this opportunity again to tell a story that I connect to in such a way. And it's funny, [Jason] connects to Maui in such a way, and I’ve always been like, Maui's fantastic, but Moana, I see everything through Moana's lens. To continue to tell her story is such a privilege. And yes, we learned the master class through Ron [Clements] and John [Musker], through Don [Hall] and Chris [Williams], and that really set us up. We both became Heads of Story in between that, which helped us in leadership. But then, it still was a big leap for us to jump into directing.

Jason Hand: Yeah, this is a huge movie. Of course, there's a learning curve involved in that. But we do have a ton of support at our studio. Jared Bush, I worked with him very closely on Encanto, he’s definitely a mentor and is helping ready this film. Jen [Lee], across the board, has been with this all the time.

Alex: Disney Animation research trips were legendary, but global events have made them impossible these past couple of years. During the presentation, we saw footage of the two of you sailing with Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Was there a research trip for Moana 2?

Jason Hand: A very localized one. The Hōkūleʻa [double-hull canoe] was actually in Marina Del Rey and we got to go down there and speak with Nainoa. Because of the pandemic, and everything, it's very difficult. We have a ton of resources from our cultural trust, but we didn't go super far this time.

David Derrick Jr.: On the first movie, I went on my own time and dime because it was important to me on a personal level. I went with my family to Samoa, and on this movie, I have done the same thing where I have gone with them. That also then becomes, in its own way, a research trip. It’s been both me emotionally reconnecting, and a reminder of how vibrant that world is, how loving that culture is, and how vast the ocean is. It's so easy to forget how vast and impressive the ocean is.

Alex: The culture trust for Moana 2 is comprised of new and returning members from the first film. With nearly a decade separating the productions, was there anything the culture trust proposed for the sequel?

David Derrick Jr.: It wasn't like a list of wants. It's more as we're developing the story, writing parallel with us, and then helping us understand the best way to do that or understand how culturally we should approach that. But one thing we are trying to do with the story we're telling is see things that were familiar but then deepening them and having a a bigger understanding. So with the Kakamora, we spent a lot of time with Millicent [Barty], who's from the Solomon Islands, to deepen everyone's understanding of who the Kakamora really are, and show a more sympathetic and deeper side to them.

Jason Hand: That is probably the shining example of that idea, is that we wanted to make sure that they were not a one-note thing. Those are characters that come from a very particular island. They have a lot of stories about them, so we spoke to several people about that. Knowing that, we're still doing our version of a Kakamora, but there's more to them.

Alex: Was there anything you learned on that local sailing with Nainoa Thompson and the Polynesian Voyaging Society that unlocked a story moment in Moana 2?

Jason Hand: It goes against what a wayfinder is, but he literally told us that getting lost was the pathway to magic. He said those exact words. And it was insane because it was something we were playing with in the story. And it sort of affirmed so many ideas that, as a wayfinder, the hardest place you could be is to get lost. But when you find your way through, and you actually finally get there, that's the magic that's created.

David Derrick Jr.: How can you find something that's never been found unless you become lost? You have to go beyond what you know and understand.

Jason Hand: That was a very direct connection.

David Derrick Jr.: It was actually a philosophical thing that just opened us. We showed every canoe design to Nainoa, and one thing is that in the Hōkūleʻa that you saw, there's not a single nail or screw, it's all lashed, it's all tied. And so with this bigger canoe, this wa'a [canoe] that we have for Moana, we're nodding to a few different cultures in the Pacific. But if you look very closely, everything's lashed, everything's knotted. So they were with us along the entire ride.

Jason Hand: One last thing on that. We have our crew on this, which is different than the first film. When we were talking to all the captains, and particularly Nainoa, different crew members bring different personalities. What does that actually feel like to be on a canoe with different people? So we were really trying to push our characters on Moana in different ways, and it would be exactly like what they were experiencing when they were out there. These people are all professionals, but they're all personalities at the same time, and they bounce off each other, rub up against each other, and maybe don't always get along, and that was something that just felt very real. And it was perfectly natural for our storytelling.

Alex: One of my favorite things about the first film is that we see Moana go on this poignant journey as someone destined to be a leader who acquires those skills by the end of the film. As you mentioned, this time, she’s venturing out with a crew, furthering her leadership skills. Was there anything from your personal lives that helped feed that evolution of her character?

David Derrick Jr.: Very early on, when we needed to find the theme for this, working on the first Moana reconnected me in a way to part of my ancestry that I wasn't as aware of in many ways. It changed me. I became a different person. I grew, and I evolved. I was 35 years old at the time, and that's when we started talking about how it doesn't matter how old you are, you're always growing, you're always changing. And that's where our theme came from of you'll never stop discovering who you are. It really came out of personal experience for all of us.

Jason Hand: Absolutely. My mom told me this thing, like, “I feel like I've lived three or four different lives. I was a daughter of my father and my mom, and then I became a wife, and then I became a mother.” There's a natural thing that happens in your own life where you go through stages. In the first film, Moana gets to a very clear stage, but there's so much more to every single person in their journey where you feel like you, at one point, thought you knew who you were, and things changed. It felt like a very universal idea that we can tap into, and it also gives Moana somewhere to go. It was a really great discovery.

Alex: Your presentation focused on the first act of Moana 2 and introduced a lot of the new characters, particularly Moana’s crew. It seems like everyone comes to this voyage with a specific skill, but when your leads are Moana and Maui, who both seem like they can do anything they set their minds to, how do you find skills they lack to build that team?

David Derrick Jr.: That's where we really leaned into that Oceanic cultural trust. When you looked at these incredible voyages that the people of the Pacific did, finding the last discoverable islands on Earth, they weren’t doing that alone. You had farmers who literally had to bring plants that couldn't propagate from seeds. There's a whole slew of plants, the ʻAwa plant the Ulu tree, and so these people had to keep them alive the entire time. And then the engineering feat of making these canoes. And then someone has to keep all of the stories, and the stories aren't just stories, they're history. So we chose each crew members to showcase the Indigenous genius that existed. But then cranking up the personalities, the character, so that you get comedic conflict from all of them, because they're so expert at what they do.

Jason Hand: Yeah. It's part of what you were speaking to on the journey of becoming a leader, and now what it actually means to be a leader is to actually deal with a bunch of people who aren’t always on the same page. The story that we're telling is about connection, and about what it means to be connected, and the idea of having more people on the canoe actually speaks to that part of the story. Hopefully, by the end of it, you'll feel like, oh, every single one of them was there for a specific reason, and without them, they wouldn't have been successful.

Alex: Every sequel has to balance audience expectations, particularly when it comes to revisiting fan-favorite characters. Obviously, Pua is back with a bonus tusk, and we’ve talked about the Kakamora. But based on what you showcased, a character like Tamatoa presumably wouldn’t have a place in Moana 2. How do you navigate those types of discussions to make sure fan service doesn’t do a disservice to the story?

David Derrick Jr.: It's whatever the story will fit. And the story, at a certain point, will reject ideas or accept them. It's always so fascinating, from the very beginning, when [Jason] and I started to build it out with more and more people, the story just becomes its own thing. It gets to a point where you're like, let's see if Tamatoa can fit. Oh, no, let's try one more time. And then we're adding new characters in. I think we're finding a beautiful balance, and there'll be some fun returning characters for sure.

Jason Hand: We tried and tested almost all of our favorites just because that's what you would do. It ends up coming down to, is there something new to be told about these characters? It's something we think a lot about, but hopefully, we've achieved a good balance of that.

Alex: For my last question, part of the reason the first film has remained evergreen is its music. Composers Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa'i are back, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is not. Was it difficult continuing the musical legacy of the first film without him?

Jason Hand: I worked with Lin on Moana and Encanto. He's incredible. I will say that [songwriters] Abigail [Barlow] and Emily [Bear] came in, and they just knocked it out of the park for us. It hasn't been difficult in that sense.

David Derrick Jr.: And the way they identified with the character of Moana, and really saw the story through their songs, and through Moana's emotional growth, has been beautiful. They brought themselves to this work in a fantastic way, and then weaving that in with Mark and Opataia is always special.

We’ll have to wait a little longer to see (and hear) more about Moana 2, which debuts exclusively in theaters on November 27th.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).