'Moana' Directors Reveal How the Story Changed

Moana Still 3 - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Disney

Five years of research and work went into the making of Disney Animation Studio’s Moana — which earned $10 million on Thursday and is projected to earn $85 million to $91 million during its five-day holiday opening.

Set in the islands of the Pacific, the musical film follows Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli'i Cravalho), a determined 16-year-old growing into the role of leader of her village. In doing so, she learns that her people had been navigators and aims to find out why this has stopped.

In animated movie production, the filmmakers create storyboards and edit the storyboards before beginning the more costly animation process. As a result, the story often can change along the way. 

The film’s veteran directing team of John Musker and Ron Clements — who helmed Disney’s Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and more recently The Princess and the Frog — described to The Hollywood Reporter how they came up with the film's idea, and how the story evolved during the five-year process.

Where did you get the idea for Moana?

Musker: Five years ago I started reading Polynesian mythology and discovered a rich source of storytelling, particularly in Maui, the demigod. He was a shape-shifter, a trickster, and had superpowers and a magical hook. All of this lent itself to an animated treatment. Ron started reading about it as well, and we put together a simple story and pitched it to John Lasseter. He loved the world and was intrigued by Maui.

He’s a fanatic about research, this led to three weeks in the islands, including Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti. … The word boondoggle was passed around.

Clements: There were maybe a couple mai tais (laughter) but we didn’t want to do the tourist things. The schedule was packed. We visited linguists, archeologists and navigators.

Musker: We learned how important navigation was, and we knew there was a 1,000-year gap when navigation stopped. That’s where we set the story.

Clements: We saw it as a kind of True Grit, with a determined young girl who teamed with a down-on-his-luck trickster. It became an adventure, a hero story, with a female character.

How did this story evolve during production?

Musker: In the original version of the story, Moana was the only girl in a family of a lot of boys, and gender played into the story. But that all changed. It was decided gender shouldn’t be her problem; it should be realizing her own self.

Also in an early version, her father was the one who wanted to see voyaging resume. She did too, but it seemed that undercut her a little bit. We wanted her to be the dominant voice for making voyaging resume. So we changed it so that the father was opposed to voyaging because of his own past when things went bad.

How did Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) evolve?

Clements: It took a while to get the right handle on Maui.

We read many of the myths and how he is portrayed through the South Pacific. We liked the idea he was the bigger than life. In some of the myths he portrayed as a straighter character, like superman, and in others he’s more of a trickster—that's the aspect that we emphasized.

We wanted him to be very flawed, but very likeable. That’s not always easy to do. When we pick up his story, he’s not at the height of his success. There were some versions where he had been stranded on this island for one thousand years and had kind of given up. But in the final version, he wanted to get off the island, and was a more active and engaged character.

We also had version in which Moana was the world's biggest Maui fan. As the story evolved, Maui is involved in a transgression so he is not looked on favorably. That helped us quite a bit in the story.

What does Moana have in common with your other Disney heroines, for instance Aladdin’s Jasmine?

Clements: They are both very smart and have a fearless quality. But I think Moana even compared with Jasmine pushed back more the limitations that have been imposed on her. We throw a lot of obstacles at this character. And part of her character is that she will not give up, no matter what.

Musker: In a physical bout, I think she could take Jasmine. (laughter)