Moana is both a revival of the Disney classic and a bold step away from their time honored tales.
Moana is no princess, a point that she makes very much clear from the get go in this film. While she may be the daug hter of her tribe's Chief, and will one day lead her people, this reluctant leader is unlike any Disney heroine we have ever met before.
Moana herself is the hero of this story, however, much of Moana, the film, is centered around the rich mythology of Maui; a demi-god capable of great feats of strength not unlike the Western hero Hercules. The true hero's journey however, is the story of one young girl who will stop at nothing to save her people.
“In this day and age, we need more heroes and heroines of our own story. And I think Moana just encompasses everything of a strong young woman,” Moana's actress, played by the delightful Auli'i Cravalho, would know. “Even I look up to her.”
While we saw notes of this in Brave, the Pixar and Disney collaboration about another young girl who sets out to save her family – Moana accomplishes this without putting the age old tropes on their title character's gender. From the get go, Moana is destined to be the next chief. There is no threat of marriage to someone she finds unworthy of her stature that keeps her from wanting to ascend that role; simply the desire to explore and see what lies beyond the reefs. The water calls to her, quite literally in some scenes, and she wants nothing more than to explore the world beyond her shores.
This is what makes Moana truly unique in their line of Disney Princess films. As Cravalho pointed out to me when I congratulated her on being Disney's first Chief Princess, she laughed and stated proudly, “I'm a Disney heroine!”
Cravalho's own journey to getting the role however, is not too far off from a Disney tale itself. The young actress was only 14 years old when she auditioned for the role. In fact, she didn't even intend to try out for it. Initially Cravalho and her friends put together an a-capella and beat-box recording to audition for a non-profit benefit. They had hoped if nothing else, they could use their love of music to help raise money for the cause. Unfortunately, they didn't get accepted.
But there was a fairy god-mother looking over Cravalho in the form of casting director Rachel Sutton. Not long after, Sutton approached Cravalho to audition for Moana. As the story goes, Cravalho was one of the last auditions the Disney team heard. And the rest, as they say, is history. Magic making Disney history.
Moana's journey took a little bit longer than normal to hit the big screen. The film took over five years to make. But it was worth it. That time was put into research into Polynesian culture and their music, and subsequent technological advances that were able to give directors John Musker and Ron Clements the ability to bring the movie to life.
Musker and Clements, for the record, are two of the most acclaimed Disney directors that crafted many of ours Disney-fueled childhoods. They were responsible for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Treasure Planet (as well as the more recent Princess and the Frog). Their artful blend of story and song has filled karaoke rooms and car rides for years since.
Musker has always been intrigued by the Pacific Islands. When asked to pitch a new film to Disney Animation head John Lasseter, there was no hesitation about what they would do next. “There's a rich and exciting history in the stories of the Polynesian people,” Musker said. He was particularly fascinated by the demi-god Maui. Known for being a shape shifter with a giant fish hook who could pull islands up from the sea floor, this larger than life mythological character was ripe for the Disney treatment.
So the team took a trip around the Pacific, immersed themselves in the cultures of Tahiti, Fiji, and other island nations. They spent time with a Fijian navigator, master boaters who can read the trails of the sea with their senses. They immersed themselves in island culture, spending time with the native inhabitants and their families, delving deep into the mythology and history of these people.
“We learned about the real historical fact that for a thousand years they didn't voyage, and historians don't know why. And we felt, 'what if we set the movie at the end of that period and our heroine is involved with rekindling the whole voyaging that is such a part of their blood and ancestry?'” Musker recounted. What was initially going to be a tale about Maui, now turned into a story of the people, and one girl in particular: Moana.
Having spent so much time with the people of Polynesia, the team knew they had to do right by them and set about casting with a distinct idea in mind. With the exception of Alan Tudyk, who adds clucks and coos as the rooster Hei Hei, Moana's entire cast is made up of people with ties to the islands. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the half-Samoan wrestler turned Hollywood's most prolific entertainer, was brought on board to be none other than the fame-loving Maui himself. New Zealander and one-half of The Flight of the Conchords duo Jemaine Clement plays one of the minor bad guys – Tamatoa. A sparkly crab with a very distinct David Bowie-esque presence. And of course, Hawaii's own Auli'i Cravalho was brought on as Moana. The rest of the cast is no less exceptional.
But what is a Disney film without it's musical accompaniment. While listening to Polynesian music for inspiration, Musker and Clements kept coming back to one man and his band - Opetaia Foa'i of Te Vaka. Foa'i knew the musical language of his culture like few others.
But Foa'i wasn't alone in this endeavor.
At the time there was a little known Broadway musical playwright by the name of Lin-Manuel Miranda. He had won a Tony for his production of In The Heights and was working on a historical piece about the founding fathers of America. Namely one Alexander Hamilton. Musker and Clements didn't think much of this when they brought Miranda on for this job; but they loved what he had already brought to the table. Miranda jumped right into the fold, taking up the drums with Foa'i and fellow composer Mark Mancina, to craft the music of Moana.
The story of Moana is endearing and refreshing to the time honored Disney classics, and similarly it is the music that brings the movie to life. The work of Foa'i, Miranda and Mancina – accompanied by the cast who sings in harmony with the beats, sets the bar high for future Disney films to come.
It is also the history that Moana teaches us, in the albeit abbreviated and Disney-fied tales of Maui and his adventures, that sticks with you long after you have left the theater. There is always some fear, a bit of unease, when a culture's stories are shared through the lens of Hollywood. Even Moana's star was unsure at first.
“Anyone who hears that a movie is going to be made inspired by their culture, we want it to be done right. We want it to be done properly. And we want to make sure that someone has done research, that they haven't just thrown together what they think our culture means. And I can honestly say that I am so proud of this film.”
As well she should be. Moana shares the wonderful culture of the Polynesian people through beautiful song and stellar animation. After the film, all I wanted to do was listen to the soundtrack on repeat (which sadly wasn't out yet, so I opted for Hamilton and Te Vaka instead) and stayed up late into the night researching and reading and falling in love with the stories of the Polynesian people. Chances are, you'll be doing the same thing too.