Disney's Moana: how Kiwis made it happen


Auli’i Cravalho, who plays the leading role in Disney's Moana, describes Dwayne Johnson a role model.

Words by Taika Waititi, music inspired by the Auckland Pasifika festival, the "command" of Temuera Morrison, and Jemaine Clement as a giant crab singing a song penned by Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. As Disney's Moana debuts overseas (it opens here Boxing Day), the animated adventure-comedy is set to bring the culture and actors of NZ and the Pacific to a huge global audience.

The film follows adventurous heroine Moana (played by Hawaiian newcomer Auli'I Cravalho) who embarks on a risky voyage to save her people, with the help of demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) turned to Waititi to craft the script after hearing about the Kiwi during a research trip to Samoa. Aware they couldn't keep the Thor: Ragnarok director "tied to a desk for five years," they had him write the first draft before he went on to What We Do In The Shadows.

Disney's new blockbuster, Moana.

Disney's new blockbuster, Moana.

"He created a lot of the architecture of the movie," Musker says during an exclusive interview at Disney Animation's Tujunga Studios in Los Angeles. "Taika draws and his father is a painter, as is he, so he had that visual sense which helped set the structure of the film. He raised the importance of the spiral as a symbol of voyaging and how it would thematically tie into the movie, and he named Tafiti and characters like Heihei."

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While the story has since evolved, the biggest changes came before the script was written. Musker, who had become fascinated by Maui and South Pacific stories, says the original idea was based on a Hawaiian tale about Moana saving her lover, Maui. 

Temuera Morrison at the Moana premiere.
Amanda Edwards

Temuera Morrison at the Moana premiere.

However after visiting locations including Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa and New Zealand, the directors were struck by the importance of voyaging and exploration to islanders, and the close-knit nature of Oceanic life. Hearing locals' concerns about the loss of cultural identity also ignited a sense of responsibility to tell their story.

"We deal with so much European fairytale and other mythology and think of these islands as just beautiful vacation spots," says Ron Clements. "There's so much more to them that we learned about the people and their experiences. Our goal became to put that into the movie because we had a life-changing experience – going to a world we weren't familiar with and coming away changed.

"There was a different way of looking at the world and a sense that we're all in this together. We're all sharing this space and what we do affects everyone around us. On a bigger scale that's very relevant today."

Kiwi-based musician and composer Opetaia Foai is introduced to the world at the Dinsey23 expo in as the soundtrack ...

Kiwi-based musician and composer Opetaia Foai is introduced to the world at the Dinsey23 expo in as the soundtrack composer of Moana by producer Osnat Shurer and directors Ron Clements and John Musker.

Over four research trips, every detail was analysed, from how Pacific environmental elements affect hair and skin, to the way debris washes back into the sea after waves crash. Filmmakers also established the Oceanic Story Trust, a group including anthropologists, linguists and advisors, to help ensure cultural and narrative authenticity.

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In NZ, the crew visited Te Puia in Rotorua and Auckland festival Pasifika, which strongly shaped the film's musical direction. 

Kiwi ties remained strong as production commenced, with NZ actors cast in key roles, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople's Rachel House, who struck directors with her "gravitas, richness and warmth", and Temuera Morrison as Moana's father, Chef Tui.

"We'd heard his voice in several movies and thought he was fabulous, so we took tracks of him and put them against character pictures," says Musker. "He has such warmth, yet such command, so it was a great combination."

Fans of Flight of the Conchords, the directors then approached Clement, who may steal the show as self-absorbed, 50-foot crab Tamatoa, who performs a "fun, comic" song.

"Originally he was a giant headless warrior, who barely talked, then he evolved into a crab," explains Musker. "[Writer] Jared specifically wrote Jemaine-esque dialogue.

"And Lin had met Jemaine at a comedy festival years ago. He binge-watched more Flight of the Conchords to get a sense of his singing voice and persona, then tailored the song to Jemaine."

The Kiwi contingent brought a strong presence during production, with Waititi reciting a Maori voyage launch speech at the first script reading and Morrison inspiringly "revving himself up by speaking in Maori," before recording sessions.

Of course, it's Moana who remains the film's focus, and who the directors hope will inspire people around the globe – and give Frozen costumes a run for their money.

"I've already read people online saying, 'Hey, there's someone who looks like me!'" says Musker. 

"I hope she can be an inspiration for people of the islands. And for young girls or anyone around the world, who feels they have this inner voice when other people are trying to define them. You have to make a statement about who you are and where you stand."

The music of Moana

Pasifika attendees were oblivious to the rising megastar in their midst at the 2014 festival. Broadway man-of-the-moment Lin Manuel Miranda, who created and starred in Hamilton, attended the event with Moana's musical team for research, but found himself winning a dance-off.

"They had different stages and one had a dance contest," recalls Clements. "They happened to pull Lin on stage and of course he won!"

"No one knew who he was because it was before Hamilton," adds Musker. "He was just this random guy who won the contest."

The movie's musical team (Miranda, composer Mark Mancina and NZ-based Opetaia Foa'i) united for the first time in Auckland, recording the track We Know the Way.

"That first song, which they started in New Zealand, was proof to us that this would work," says producer Osnat Shurer. "These three were so good together."

Musker adds that Pasifika proved an instrumental influence in the film's score, as did Foa'i, who has lived in Tuvalu, Samoa and New Zealand.

"He's a man of the islands and his band, Te Vaka, was so influential in the music. It's the perfect blend of rootsy music of the area that's also accessible."

 - Sunday Star Times

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