SPOILER WARNING FOR MOANA
Like many others, my Thanksgiving holiday weekend included a trip to my local movie theater to see Moana with family. If you haven’t read my Moana review yet I’ll give you the short version: I loved it. So did everyone else in my family, particularly my stepdad who had been looking forward to the movie for months. See, my stepdad is from Hawaii, and here was a movie featuring people who looked like him, acting out the legends he grew up hearing. Sure, Lilo & Stitch is also set in Hawaii, but this was different. Moana is about the Hawaiian people and their legends in a way few other movies ever have been before (sorry Blue Hawaii).
So, as the end credits rolled my stepfather proceeded to not only praise the movie but also to fire off a series of stories about Hawaii, telling me about one magical cave which bestows bad luck on any tourist who takes one of the cave’s many rocks.
Small problem: Moana isn’t actually about Hawaii; it’s about the ancient Polynesians who eventually set sail and discovered Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand, among various other islands and island clusters, and brought their legends with them, including Maui. I believed the entire time I was watching Disney’s version of ancient Hawaii when in fact it’s actually set 2,000 years ago around the South Pacific islands Samoa, Fiji and Tonga. Clearly, someone needs to read up on his history of the South Pacific and Hawaii. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one in the family to make this error, although my stepdad laughed off our mistake, characterizing Moana as a sort of Hawaii prequel.
In response to this misreading of the film on my part, I sought out various interviews with the filmmakers to better educate myself, and discovered the following fun facts:
1. It all started five years ago with an idea and research trip to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti
Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, best known for The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog, have told slightly differing stories for how exactly this project came about, the key point of departure being who to credit for having the idea to explore Polynesian mythology in the first place.
Here’s what Musker told The Hollywood Reporter:
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.
Here’s what Clements told Collider:
This movie actually started a little over five years ago, which is not that unusual for an animated film. It was John Lasseter’s idea. He wanted to do a movie based on the world of the Pacific Islands and the mythology, which led to, about five years ago, taking a trip to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti. That was really the basis of the movie, in terms of the connection to navigation, people’s connection to their ancestry and the respect for nature. A lot of those ideas came from that first research trip, and the movie was heavily inspired by that.
Maybe John Lasseter told them to look into Pacific Island-related mythology but didn’t offer any more specifics, and then Musker came back with all of his research about Maui which kickstarted their trip to the islands?
2. Moana almost had a bunch of brothers
Considering it took five years for Moana to evolve from idea to finished film, the script took several different forms along the way, including one in which Moana would have been the only girl in a family full of boys. Musker told THR:
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.
3. Moana and Maui’s relationship was originally much different
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.
4. They found their Moana on the last day of casting
Moana has been advertised as “Introducing Auli‘i Cravalho,” and the teenager’s casting might be part of the reason some of us assumed the story was set in Hawaii. Cravalho is Hawaiian-Portuguese-Chinese-Irish. Plus, she’s grown up in Hawaii, and she first heard about Disney’s Moana auditions through her all-Hawaiian school. However, as Cravalho told MovieFone:
I wasn’t planning on auditioning for this role, because I had seen many wonderful auditions for “Moana” on YouTube and I thought, ‘Oh my god, her voice is stellar, it’s so much better than mine. I wouldn’t get chosen anyway, so why should I try out.’
Luckily for her (and us), the right person was in the Oahu audience of a charity competition Cravalho participated in, and that led to her auditioning for Moana on the final day of casting. They clearly saved the best for last.
5. Moana and Maui were never actually in the same room together
Making her feature film debut, Cravalho quickly discovered one of the challenges of voice acting is having to act opposite nothing and no one. Some animated projects prefer to have actors record their dialogue together, but most don’t and Moana is no different, meaning the great back and forth between Moana and Maui in the movie never actually involved Cravalho directly communicating with Dwayne Johnson. Cravalho offered more details in her MovieFone interview:
I thought that I was going to be rubbing elbows with Dwayne Johnson in the booth, but no. He’s the busiest man in Hollywood, so I suppose I can forgive him. We met on the Miami shoot though, and we had a lot of fun. But, the way our voices play off of each other, it really does sound like a true conversation, and that’s where I swear some Disney magic becomes involved. I don’t know how they do it, I really don’t. It’s incredible that I can do a line forty times and they can tell which ones they believe will work just from hearing Dwayne’s voice and remembering how the scene plays out.
6. Lin Manuel-Miranda got the job 7 months before Hamilton debuted
Disney scored a bit of a coup here: they hired Lin Manuel-Miranda to co-write Moana‘s songs with Opetaia Foa’i and composer Mark Mancina right before Hamilton turned him into a gazillionaire who can do just about anything he wants to in the entertainment world. Not only that, they made him keep his work on Moana secret. As Hamilton turned into an overwhelming cultural phenomenon, Manuel-Miranda grew grateful to have the world of Moana to escape into, recently telling Deadline:
I have been working on this movie since before “Hamilton” happened, you know? I got the job about six months before we started rehearsals. No, seven and a half months before we started at the Public, and so, it’s been my ocean of calm throughout the “Hamilton” phenomenon, you know? I’m not going to hang out with celebrities, I’m not going to parties. I have two songs due for “Moana” next week, and I’m going to go and spend some time with Maui and Moana in the ocean, in my mind.
7. “We Know the Way” was the first song written for the movie
Which song is that? This one:
Miranda told Deadline the story behind the song:
“We Know the Way.” That’s the first song we wrote for the movie. We, actually got it written that weekend in New Zealand, so we’re all in New Zealand, we’re all absorbing this culture, and Opetaia brought it in. He brought in the melody and the lyrics, but the lyrics were in Tokelauan, and so, we talked about what it could mean and whether this could be the ancestor song. So, I started writing English lyrics to sort of the same melody, and then Mark came in and started playing some alternate chords and playing with that, and then I came up with the “We are explorers,” with sort of a counter-melody to Ope’s melody. And so, it happened so organically, that it really, to me, is the most emblematic of our collaboration.
It’s also the song you can hear Manuel-Miranda singing on, which came about almost by accident. He sang on the demo, and the intention was always to hire someone else to sing his lines. However, they kept not doing that, growing more accustomed to his voice being in the song before deciding to simply stick with it.
8. The singing voice of Moana’s dad goes way back with Lin Manuel-Miranda
Manuel-Miranda isn’t the only one who kept his work on Moana secret; so did the cast of Hamilton, several of whom helped Manuel-Miranda out by singing on is Moana demos. That paid off for Chris Jackson, a longtime Manuel-Miranda collaborator who played Benny in In the Heights, George Washington in Hamilton and even made his way into Moana, serving as the singing voice for Moana’s dad (Temuera Morrison provides the character’s speaking voice). Manuel-Miranda told Vulture:
I think I gravitate toward singers who unlock my work — Chris Jackson is someone who I met in 2002 who has been in Heights and Hamilton and he’s the singing voice of Moana’s dad, and that came about because he was doing all my demos. I was writing these songs while I was in Hamilton, so Pippa [Soo] did demos, Chris and Renée [Elise Goldsberry] sang my demos for me, and I just learned an enormous amount from just hearing skillful singers do it.
9. They had to create the technology to achieve the animation
Musker and Clements had never created an entirely computer animated film before Moana, and they couldn’t have picked a more challenging first project, tasked with animating a shape-shifting god, a believably human teenage girl, gorgeous ocean waters and islands as well as turning the ocean into a sentient character with characteristics lifted out of The Abyss. As is often the way with these Disney/Pixar movies, to achieve this vision required creating new technology, as Musker told Collider:
We knew we wanted the ocean to be a character in the movie. We also knew that we wanted to have a lava monster in the movie. We didn’t know how to do it, so we talked to a lot of very smart people, but they didn’t know how to do it either. They said, “This is going to be really, really hard, but we think we can figure it out before the movie needs to come out,” and they did. There’s groundbreaking technology in this movie. There are a lot of things in this movie, including what was done with Maui’s hair and Moana’s hair, that are really breakthroughs in technology.
10. They’re not ruling out a sequel
No animated Disney movie ever truly dies; they live on in the form of animated shorts, direct-to-video sequels, theme park attractions, Broadway musicals, live-action remakes and on the extreme rare occasion an actual theatrically-released sequel. That’s why we’ve already had one Frozen short, will soon have a sequel and are about to see TV show continuations of Big Hero 6 and Tangled. What might the future hold for Moana? Musker and Clements weighed in:
MUSKER: They previewed the movie, around the world, and I read some of the results that came back. They previewed the movie in Australia and they asked them, “Would you be interested in seeing a sequel to this movie?,” and 92% of them said yes. But, I don’t think that way. I was like, “Really?!” For me, I’m just so focused on the movie itself. But if it has a life of its own, that would be great.
CLEMENTS: I think there is an implication that Moana is going to go on to have other adventures. Whether or not she ever does in the movies, you feel like she’s just getting started. It’s not quite a happily ever after story.
MUSKER: It’s sort of an origin story.
CLEMENTS: There was a thousand year gap where, in the actual history, they stopped voyaging for a thousand years, and then they started up again, two thousand years ago, and that’s what Moana is doing, at the end of the movie. At that point, half of the Pacific Islands have been explored, but Hawaii and New Zealand are out there. They haven’t been populated yet. So, who knows. There’s a future there.