Making Waves: The Makers of Moana on Disney’s Latest Animated Adventure

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker rack up nearly 90 years of combined experience at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Their partnership has produced beloved titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and Hercules (1997) that have fascinated an entire generation around the world. This Thanksgiving marks the duo’s return to the big screen with Disney’s Moana, their first feature film since 2009’s The Princess and the Frog and the latest entry in Walt Disney Animation Studio’s current renaissance under the helm of chief creative officer John Lasseter.

“After Princess and the Frog we were looking around for different ideas to do a feature on,” recalls John Musker in describing Moana’s genesis. “I had always been fascinated by the world of the South Pacific, even though I hadn’t actually been there at that point, but the interest was there after reading books by Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. It seemed like an interesting and exotic landscape—a rich, visual area—but, admittedly, coming from a Western point of view, I didn’t know anything about the mythology, and I wondered about the stories coming from that world. I began researching Polynesian mythology.”

What Musker found only increased his interest in the cultures of the region. “I discovered a great, rich vein of storytelling, characters, bigger-than-life images, and particularly this character of Maui—whom I hadn’t heard of before. Maui was a trickster god of the Pacific islands and Oceania, a shape-shifter who could pull islands out of the sea. He had tattoos that depicted his exploits—I thought it would be a great character to bring to life.”

It wasn’t the first time Clements and Musker looked at mythology for inspiration—from Atlantis in The Little Mermaid and the Middle East in Aladdin to ancient Greece in Hercules and the Louisiana bayou in The Princess and the Frog. With Moana, the figure of Maui provided an access point to South Pacific culture, but at that early stage, with no story in place, there was hardly a film to think about, let alone pitch. It wasn’t until they received the green light to embark on an initial research trip to the Pacific Islands in October of 2011 that the idea began to gather momentum.

“That was a very transformative trip,” says Musker. “Our development department did a really good job in putting us in touch with some people that have very deep roots in the culture on multiple islands. When we came back, we didn’t really pitch a story. We didn’t even have a story at that point. We told John Lasseter what we learned on that trip, what we came away with.”

Whatever Clements and Musker said must have been very impressive. Lasseter approved the project and let the animation veterans get to work crafting a narrative that would translate to the big screen. Maui was always going to be a part of the story, but the true challenge was in determining how. One of the things that impressed Clements most from that initial trip was learning about the importance of navigation in the culture. “They used dead reckoning; they had no instruments whatsoever,” he says. “Based on their knowledge of the stars and the currents, they found their way through the ocean. It was a great feat, and we wanted to celebrate that.”

To incorporate navigation into the narrative, Clements turned to a significantly more Western source—the Western genre itself. “True Grit was an initial influence in terms of the basic story,” admits Clements. The prospect of teaming up a young girl with a lot of determination with an older, more jaded, and grizzled character was especially compelling, he says. That’s how the filmmakers came to the character of Moana, and how Maui finally met his match. “May I use the word ‘badass’?” says Musker, chuckling as he tries to describe her character. Moana is a teenager living on the (fictional) Motunui Island in Polynesia, who feels a deep connection and yearning for the sea. Upon discovering her ancestors’ long history as navigators, Moana sets out to look for the mythical demigod Maui in a nautical adventure that has her people’s home at stake. The filmmakers set out to look for the right voice in an open casting call. Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho stepped up, emerging from the multitude of auditions as the filmmakers’ first choice for the part. She is complemented by some serious star power, sharing the animated screen with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson—of Samoan heritage himself—as Maui. The casting informed the animation department’s take on the iconic character, as many of Johnson’s mannerisms were incorporated into the design, such as the way he punctuates dialogue with head movement and the trademark “People’s Eyebrow” look from his pro-wrestling days.

Other aspects of the character design drew from the feedback of numerous local sources, consulted during the filmmakers’ visits to the islands. “Apart from that immersion, a big part of these trips was to meet people,” explains senior creative executive Jessica Julius. “We met with academics, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, historians, but also artists, dancers, musicians, and elders. Everybody we could meet. We were really lucky because they shared their knowledge and information with us.” The collaboration was so close that the filmmakers began calling the group their Oceanic Story Trust, often returning to them to share ideas and incorporate their feedback.

“It wasn’t like we set out to put together a council,” says producer Osnat Shurer. “What happened was that we met these wonderful people: friends, friends of friends, and so on. The more we met people who were sharing their expertise with us, the more we realized that we’d like to keep them involved as we progressed with the movie. We weren’t making a documentary so it wasn’t like we were trying to be precise, but we really wanted to do two things: give the movie a grounding in the cultures that inspired it, and also honor the idea of giving back. They gave us this inspiration, and the least we could do is be respectful of this input and gather more of it.”

In an early version of the film, for example, Maui was completely bald. It was only after consulting with the Oceanic Story Trust that the filmmakers learned that those who grew up with the legend of Maui usually pictured him with a full head of hair—and in came a full, flowing mane. “Different islands had different versions of [Maui],” explains Musker. In some he was more of a superhero figure, in some he’s short and squat, in others he’s taller—there was no one consistent thing. The one aspect he did have in common in all these stories is that he had this big, magical fishhook, which he used to do great feats.” The other similarity are Maui’s tattoos, which presented a fun opportunity for the creative team. “He’s covered in tattoos that tell of all his great exploits, like a walking billboard of all these great deeds,” Musker continues. “There’s one tattoo in particular that features prominently in the film, a small version of him that we call Mini Maui, who acts as his Jiminy Cricket conscience. Because of our background in hand-drawn animation, we thought it would be great to have these tattoos come to life on his skin.” Although small by definition, Mini Maui’s role in the film is bigger than meets the eye. “He’s not just a moving tattoo, he actually has a personality and a function in the story,” says head of animation Hyrum Osmond. “First of all, he’s Maui’s biggest cheerleader, and also he’s Maui’s alter ego. More than anything else, he is Maui’s conscience, since Maui is a bit of a trickster.”

Of all the characters in the film, there was one in particular that nearly every filmmaker who was interviewed for this story highlighted: a chicken called Hei Hei. “In the earlier treatments of the story he was actually smart and kind of ornery, but he didn’t seem as funny as we wanted him to be,” recalls Musker. It got to the point where Hei Hei’s purpose in the story was becoming increasingly unclear. “Oftentimes we’re called upon to solve a problem. Our problem was trying to save Hei Hei,” says story artist Sunmee Josh. “He was a character we had since the very beginning of the story, but because the story was changing he was suddenly on the chopping block. The directors really wanted to keep him, but they were about to give up.” The turning point came when the animation department found itself with unexpected down time after a colleague came down with a cold. The reprieve gave them an opportunity to think through a better way to incorporate Hei Hei into the story.

“In previous versions of the movie, he was a hot-shot character with an attitude. He was at one point the chief watchdog—keeping a very close eye on characters. He was also mean for no good reason, and we also tried making him very judgmental,” says Josh. None of those worked, but the solution finally emerged at the eleventh hour. “They took his IQ and dialed it down. Way, way down. His SAT scores fell considerably,” says Musker. “He may be the dumbest character in Disney Animation history,” Clements deadpans.

“It wasn’t enough just making him dumb—he had to be a complication for Moana and her journey, a complication for the story,” says Josh. Therein was the key; Hei Hei was now a liability at every turn—and a hilarious one at that. When the filmmakers presented the new iteration of Hei Hei to John Lasseter, he reportedly approved it by standing up, clapping, and exclaiming, “Hei Hei is saved!” Screenwriter Jared Bush remembers a fitting coda to the ordeal: “We celebrated with a fried chicken lunch.”

As any animated-film aficionado can attest, story and characters are only half the fun. When it came to developing Moana’s music, the production turned to producer Osnat Shurer and her expertise in world music. She describes that background as one of the main reasons for her excitement in joining the film following the first research trip to the islands. “That’s what I listen to, and that’s what I do.”

“We felt the best model for this [film] was The Lion King, where Elton John worked with Lebo M., and that was all brought together by Mark Mancina,” continues Shurer. “Mark has written the score for lots of Disney films and was on a film right before we started; we just loved his access to world music. He joined us early on, first as a consultant because it was too early for a composer. When I first joined the film, I spent days listening to any Pacific Island music I could find. In all of it, what stood out from the rest, by far, was the music of Te Vaka. The band has this magical way of bringing together Pacific Island music with something a little bit more contemporary—but not super contemporary.”

Enthralled by Te Vaka’s sound, Shurer shared a stack of CDs with Clements and Musker, who signed off on incorporating the Oceanic band. “Now we had two of the three for this team we wanted to put together,” says Shurer. “Our music producer arranged a trip to New York for Ron, John, and me. We went to a lot of musicals and met with a lot of singers and songwriters.” That’s when a familiar name—Lin-Manuel Miranda—came into focus, just before he embarked on one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time. “When Lin came in it was love at first sight,” she says. “His energy, his way of carrying himself. I was particularly thrilled with the fact that he’d written a bilingual musical with In the Heights. I loved his fluidity between languages, his opening to the Tonys, and the way he packs lyrics in, working with words and music.” For Musker, Miranda’s multicultural background, and, more specifically, how he wove it into his work, was a major draw. “In the Heights had songs that went from Spanish to English effortlessly, and yet you didn’t need to know Spanish to get the emotion of the song. That’s what we wanted in this movie.”

Early on during meetings, the directors remember asking Miranda about other projects he was developing. “He did briefly mention while we were talking to him that he was working on this thing that was a rap/hip-hop version of the story of Alexander Hamilton,” says Clements. “We just looked at each other, thinking, ‘Oh, it’s good he’s getting this little vanity piece of out of his system and he can get serious with our movie!’” says Musker.

Ultimately, Miranda’s willingness to collaborate so openly with the musicians from the South Pacific became another big selling point, an attitude that Musker says was not necessarily shared by other musicians they met. They put Miranda on a plane to New Zealand a day after securing him for the film, where he attended the Pasifika Music Festival to fully immerse himself in the islands’ sounds. The music team then rented a studio on the beach near Auckland, where Mancina, Te Vaka, and Miranda got to meet in person and spend some time together. “There were no demands on them to write anything,” says Shurer, who saw it as an opportunity for the artists to get to know each other, “but they did lay the foundation for ‘We Know the Way,’ the first song that was written for the movie.”

“We were lucky it was before Hamilton,” says Clements with a laugh, referring to the level of stardom that blossomed for Miranda following the Broadway opening of his hit musical. The directors got to see an early version of Hamilton at the Public Theater in New York, but like countless others haven’t been able to see the show on Broadway. “It’s supposed to open in London sometime soon. I’ll try to catch it there,” says Musker.

From Clements and Musker to Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Rock, the Oceanic Story Trust, and the rest of the cast and crew—it’s clear that Moana is truly a collaborative effort, from some of the brightest talent that Walt Disney Animation Studios could assemble. On a personal level, however, it’s a labor of love from a production team that wanted to honor a culture that received them so warmly. For story artist David Derrick, of Samoan ancestry, it represented a dream opportunity to bring his background, and even details of his own family history, to a Disney film; he designed an exact replica of his grandfather’s 14-foot-long siapo tapa cloth and sneaked it into the frame whenever it made sense. According to Derrick, his connection to the film resonated most as he worked on a pivotal scene early in the film. “The most important thing to me about Moana as a character is that when she goes into that cave, she discovers the reason she has that pull to the sea. It’s because, beyond herself, she has a connection to her ancestors.”

News Stories