For “Moana” star Auli’i Cravalho, Disney’s new animated film felt very familiar. “I grew up in a small town on the island of Hawaii,” the young actress told CBR and other members of the press at a recent press conference. “I grew up around pigs and chickens, and I listened to the stories growing up.”
The movie, which opens November 23, tells the tale of a chieftain’s daughter who sets out to find the demigod Maui and restore the balance of life in the Polynesian islands. The project began as an idea from co-director John Musker, who, along with fellow “Little Mermaid” and “Moana” director Ron Clements, visited places like Hawaii, Fiji and New Zealand to learn more of the various cultures and myths in the Pacific Islands. “It created the connection to navigation [as seen in the film] and the respect for ancestry,” Clements said. “The film was heavily inspired by that. We tried to capture as much as we could.”
According to Musker, a second trip followed with their musical team of Lin-Manuel Miranda (of “Hamilton” fame), composer Mark Mancina and Te Vanka founder Opetaia Foa’i.
“The job offer came with a ticket to New Zealand,” Miranda recalled. “We immersed ourselves in this world. Oeptaia and Mark and I started banging on drums and finding a sound honoring the rhythms which come out of this part of the world.”
Foa’i joked he held a dance competition to create a bond with Mancina and Miranda. “Fortunately, Puerto Ricans can shake their butts, too,” Miranda joked.
Asked if getting co-star Dwayne Johnson to sing was difficult, Miranda said the perception of the actor as a tough action star leads to that question, but it could not be further from the truth. “[Dwayne] was excited,” Miranda explained. “For me, I went to YouTube -- where all the answers lie -- and looked at video of his [wrestling] heel-turn days when he would taunt towns with a guitar. Then it was just about writing lyrics which made sense for Maui.” The song came be to known as “You’re Welcome,” an idea Miranda said “only The Rock could pull off.”
“By the time I got the song, it was in my range, but it pushed me a little,” Johnson explained. “We all love challenges, and the bar is set so incredibly high [when you] sing in a Disney song.”
“Dwayne is the new Angela Lansbury,” joked Miranda.
He added that he worked on the songs just as “Hamilton” was about to open, and it became an “oasis” from the show and its growing popularity. “During [‘Hamilton’] previews, it was a great break. It was the opposing muscle group,” he explained. “It kept me grounded and kept me writing.”
Also assisting the production was what producer Osnat Shurer called a “Loose Ocenanic story trust.” The group, assembled of various people from the islands, took a look at every design and story idea – down to the tattoos on the characters and dances employed in some of the musical numbers.
Between discussions with the story trust and their visits to the region, Clement and Musker knew they wanted the ocean itself to be a character in the film. Though silent, it is a constant presence. When development began five years ago, the pair was unsure their vision for the character could be pulled off; particularly as “Moana” would be their first CG animated film. “We didn’t know how to do it and we talked to smart people and they didn’t know how to do it,” Clement recalled. “But they said they could figure out [in time.]” The finished animation of the ocean worked better than they initially imagined and the directors credited the team with “real breakthroughs” in animating water and hair in the 3D environment.
Besides being Clement and Musker’s first computer-animated film, "Moana" is Cavalho’s film debut. “I’m 15 going on 16 and working with the best people who are making a film based on my culture,” she said when asked about the experience. “That is something so incredibly special. For me, as someone who is hoping to continue in show biz, I was wondering how I would continue in this and still be Polynesian.” The film touches on these themes as Moana must also leave her home in order to save it. Cavalho came away from the project feeling she can maintain her roots while pursuing an acting career.
“Before I was working on this film, I was bit wary of it,” she continued. “You want it to be done right and Disney has done a wonderful job. The Oceanic trust and the research trips produced a film that will hopefully inspire people to learn more and go on their own journeys.”
“My journey has been from the village to the city,” Foa’I said, who added that his family took a long time to understand why he wanted a career as a musician. “Our ancestors are happy with this movie, culturally speaking,” he continued. “Other cultures will see it and become interested. But there will also be people of our culture who grew up in the cities and learn about their pasts.”
“What Opetaia said is very resonant in the pride [Polynesians] will have in the film,” added Johnson. Like Cavalho, he mentioned the initial hesitance some felt when word broke that Disney was making a movie about the Pacific islands, but he also said “Polynesians will be proud” of the results.