THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Moana’

The one that felt like a breath of fresh air.

When Walt Disney premiered Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, he also inadvertently (or possibly entirely intentionally) launched one of Disney’s most successful pseudo film franchises and merchandise lines; the Disney Princesses. In more recent decades, the very definition of what constituted a typical Disney princess character had been pushed outside the limited box of Disney’s earlier princess films.

While the earlier Disney princesses were little more than one-dimensional lovesick damsels in distress like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, the recent crop of new heroines were crafted as more independent, intelligent, and skilful young women who could inspire the next generation of youngsters to challenge the idea of what’s expected of them. We were even gifted with Disney princesses of non-caucasian descent, courtesy of our first Asian, Black, and Native American princesses in Mulan, Tiana, and Pocahontas respectively.

While 2002’s Lilo & Stitch had presented Hawaiian culture and its people in a Disney animated film for the very first time, the film hadn’t blessed the studio with a Polynesian princess to add to its growing lineup, which had recently expanded to add two new white princesses in Tanged‘s Rapunzel and even its first Pixar princess in Brave‘s Merida. Enter directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the men responsible for the creation of one-third of Disney’s 11 princesses and the perfect choice to craft another iconic heroine to join the princess roster.

After completing 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, Clements and Musker began developing an animated adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s 1987 fantasy novel Mort. After working on concept art and a draft script, the directors ultimately failed to attain the film rights from Pratchett and the project was abandoned in 2011. To avoid further rights issues, the duo pitched three original ideas to Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios John Lasseter, including one centred on Polynesian mythology.

Musker had recently been studying the history of Polynesia and was particularly struck by the heroic exploits of the demigod Māui, a culture hero and a trickster who was famous for his cleverness and brash attitude, and, amongst other achievements, was credited with bringing fire to the world. The director felt the rich culture of Polynesia and the story of Māui would make the perfect subject and setting for an animated feature, with the director writing a story treatment with Clements to pitch to Lasseter.

While Lasseter loved the concept, he felt Clements and Musker should further familiarise themselves with Polynesian culture and commissioned the duo to take research trips to Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti. Tough job, right? In 2012, the directors spent several weeks on the three islands to meet with the locals and learn more about their culture, which spanned back hundreds of years. It was during the research trip that Clements realised it would be best for the film to focus on the young daughter of a chief, with Maui reworked as more of a supporting sidekick character.

During their study of Polynesian history, Clements and Musker became fascinated by the navigational traditions of Polynesia that actually predated those of European explorers, which strangely came to an unexplained abrupt holt around three thousand years ago. While scholars have surmised this may have been the result of shifting ocean currents and wind patterns caused by climate change, the directors felt it would make the perfect narrative setting for their film, with a more mythological cause behind the cessation of ocean exploration.

With the focus now on a young girl named Moana, Clements and Musker reworked the project and drew inspiration from Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga to create the fictional Polynesian island of Motunui, whose people were once brave ocean voyagers. The island’s inhabitants worshipped the goddess Te Fiti, who brought life to the ocean using a pounamu stone as her heart and the source of her power. But when shape-shifting demigod Maui attempted to steal the heart, he is attacked by the volcanic demon Te Kā, causing the heart to be lost to the depths of the ocean.

Without Te Fiti’s heart to protect the oceans, the people of Motunui refused to journey across the seas and hid their expansive fleet of ships in a secret cave. When we meet Moana thousands of years later, Te Kā’s darkness is poisoning her island home, leading to Moana bravely setting off on a daring voyage to find Maui and force him to restore the heart of Te Fiti to save Motunui from ruin.

Clements and Musker turned to future Oscar-winning screenwriter Taiki Waititi to write the initial screenplay, but Waititi departed the project in 2012 to return to New Zealand to focus on his newborn child and work on his film What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi would later reveal very little of his initial draft remained in the final film. Over the next two years, Moana went through numerous rewrites including reworking Moana’s father Tui, who was initially written as a mentor who supported Moana’s decision to journey across the seas.

But Clements and Musker were concerned Tui would ultimately steal focus from Moana and overshadow his daughter’s independent streak and brave determination. Story artist Pamela Ribon suggested the film would work better with Tui as an overprotective father, with Moana ultimately defying her father’s decision for his daughter to stay on the island. In Tui’s place, Ribon created the character of Tala, Moana’s paternal grandmother, who shares a strong bond with her granddaughter and mentors Moana on the island’s ancient traditions to encourage her to set out to find Maui.

In 2015, Lasseter felt the production was still beset by major story problems and the animation was falling behind schedule. While Clements and Musker were already working 12 hours a day, six days a week, they agreed they needed help with the film’s screenplay. Lasseter assigned Big Hero 6 co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams to the project, who worked closely with the production’s story team, while Clements and Musker focused on the animation and dialogue recording.

Hall and Williams enlisted Hawaiian-born identical twin screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kandell to help deepen the emotional resonance of the film. The Kandells worked to further develop the core friendship between Moana and Maui and wrote an extended prologue to fill in the backstory of both Maui and Motunui. The brothers also created the character of Tamatoa, a giant, villainous, treasure-hoarding coconut crab, who lived in the Realm of Monsters and was currently in possession of Maui’s magic fish hook that gives him the ability to shape-shift. By the end of production, the Kandells were widely credited with saving the entire production.

To help with the authenticity of the film’s characters, settings, and narrative, Clements and Musker recruited experts from South Pacific nations to form “the Oceanic Story Trust,” who were consistently consulted in regards to the cultural accuracy and sensitivity of almost every aspect of the film. The Trust was comprised of academics, archeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, tattoo masters, navigators, and tribal elders, who shared their knowledge and insights with the production team and were constantly available to answer the filmmakers’ questions during the production process. Whether major or minor, every change to the script was sent to the Trust for their approval, while they were also consulted for their feedback on the film’s costuming, music, and dialogue.

In a further bid to strengthen film’s authenticity, Clements and Musker enlisted a cast of voice actors with Polynesian roots, including part Samoan Dwayne Johnson as Maui, part Maori Temeura Morrison as Tui, part Maori Rachel House as Tala, part Hawaiian Nicole Scherzinger as Moana’s mother Sina, and part Maori Jemaine Clement as Tamatoa. After an exhaustive worldwide search for the voice of Moana, where the filmmaker auditioned hundreds of actors, 14-year-old high school student and Hawaiian native Auliʻi Cravalho won the role. At the point of her casting, the character design of Moana was already complete, making Cravalho’s physical resemblance to the character purely coincidental.

While Moana was created entirely using computer animation, the filmmakers turned to veteran Disney animator Eric Goldberg to create Maui’s sentient, animated tattoos using traditional “hand-drawn” animation, particularly during the performance of Maui’s musical number “You’re Welcome.” Goldberg created two-dimensional drawings which echoed traditional South Pacific tattoos, including a miniature tattoo replica of Maui, who remains entirely mute throughout the entire film, but still performs a wide range of emotions through pantomime.

Over 80% of Moana would require the use of special effects work, which were once again handled by Disney’s powerful Hyperion rendering system. To achieve the film’s numerous sequences featuring water (which was practically every frame), the Hyperion system was upgraded with new lighting and liquid capabilities to accurately render water in photorealistic fashion. The animated water was created using various methods including simple procedural wave functions, hand-animated rigged systems, and complex fluid simulations created using Splash, a custom-built liquid simulator.

In addition to the complicated rendering process, the animators were able to compress the production time considerably by creating “foundation effects,” which are simple placeholder examples of elements such as water, fire, and sand. These high-resolution effects are created to be camera-ready, allowing animators to simply begin working with them and construct final shots without the need to animate each effect from scratch. By end of production in October 2016, over 750 people had worked on Moana, making it one of the largest productions in Disney’s history.

For the film’s original musical composition, Clements and Musker sought to combine traditional South Pacific culture with Broadway sensibilities, which ultimately led the directors to Tokelauan singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i, perennial Disney composer Mark Mancina, and Broadway composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. At the time, Miranda was workshopping his musical Hamilton, which, by the time Moana was released, would become the hottest show in town.

The trio would craft seven original songs for the film, including a braggadocious song for Maui entitled “You’re Welcome,” a David Bowie-inspired track for Tamatoa called “Shiny,” and Moana’s “I Want” song, “How Far I’ll Go,” which would become a breakout hit of its own, courtesy of a pop cover by Canadian singer Alessia Cara. Several of the songs featured New Zealand vocal group Te Vaka and a Fijian women’s choir, while Mancina’s instrumental score featured traditional Polynesian instruments including woodwinds made from South Pacific bamboo and hide-covered Tyka drums.

Moana was released on November 23, 2016, to rave reviews from film critics. Variety called the film “a return to the heights of the Disney Renaissance,” The Wall Street Journal hailed the film as “beautiful in more ways than I can tell, thanks to the brilliance of more animators than I could count,” while The Hollywood Reporter praised the film as “contemporary Disney at its finest – a vibrantly rendered adventure that combines state-of-the-art CG animation with traditional storytelling and colourful characters, all enlivened by a terrific voice cast.”

The film was another tremendous success for Walt Disney Animation Studios, grossing $248.7 million in the U.S. and a further $394.5 million international for an impressive worldwide total of $643.3 million. This made Moana the fifth-highest-grossing Disney animated film of all time and the 20th highest-grossing animated film in history. The soundtrack peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 Chart and was certified double platinum in recognition of more than 2 million albums sales/streams. Moana was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, but lost to its fellow Disney production, Zootopia. Miranda also received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for “How Far I’ll Go,” but lost to “City of Stars” from La La Land.

Ten years after the studio’s first true foray into the computer-animated world, Moana represented the pinnacle of Disney computer animation. To call this film visually dazzling is an understatement. It is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema, with some of the most detailed and photorealistic animated backgrounds ever seen on screen. From the spectacular water designs to the lush tropical backdrops, Moana is an eye-popping display of the stunning capabilities of computer animation and another example of how far Disney had progressed in the last decade.

If Frozen broke the mould on what a female-centric Disney film should be, Moana shatters it even further. Witness a Disney Princess without a love interest, or any desire to find a love interest, for that matter. Moana is not searching for a prince, but rather searching for herself and her place in her world. And while she may battle coconut pirates, a giant crab, and a fire-breathing lava god, the toughest opponent Moana must overcome is her own self-doubt. What a bold statement that is for any youngster to take in.

And, much like Frozen, Moana also succeeds by playing to Broadway sensibilities, which are provided by the toast of Broadway in Miranda. His compositions are fresh and lively with plenty of raw emotion, echoing the music of Disney’s renaissance period of the 80s and 90s. But it’s ultimately when Maui enters the film that Moana truly comes to life, thanks to a sublime performance by Johnson, who perfectly captures Mau’s cocky, selfish attitude that ultimately evolves into something entirely endearing. Johnson’s banter with Cravalho is a delight and their evolving relationship is the film’s true heart.

Sure, Moana features many typical Disney trademarks; the physical and emotional journey of its heroine, the “I Want” song of yearning, the cute animal sidekicks (Pua the pot-belly pig is beyond adorable and Hei Hei the rooster is a fabulously bizarre little creation), the “all hope seems lost” moment. But Moana sets itself apart by delivering a strong, intelligent, independent heroine children can and should truly hold as an aspirational figure. Moana is a new Disney Princess for the ages and the film was like a refreshing cool island breeze that was so lacking from Disney animation.

Is Moana a Disney Classic? With Moana officially added to the Disney Princess line-up in March 2019 and no signs of Disney relenting on tie-in merchandise, Moana remains one of the most popular releases of the last decade. It blessed fans with a new inspiring heroine and rightly played on the musical sensibilities that revived Disney animation in the late 80s. While the animation remains as dazzling as it was four years ago, the film needs a few more years under its belt before it achieves true Disney Classic status.

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