Ron Clements and John Musker have directed some of the greatest Disney movies of all time, including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. They have also directed some of my personal favorites, Hercules and Treasure Planet. They have a great track record, and Moana is no different. After they finished The Princess and the Frog, they wanted to adapt Terry Pratchett’s Mort, but necessary film rights kept it from happening. To avoid this, they pitched three original ideas, one of which was a movie based around Polynesian culture. Musker had started reading about Polynesian history and the god Maui, and he thought it would make a great movie. Musker and Clements traveled to many different islands in the Pacific to learn as much as they could, with the plan that it would be a movie solely about Maui. After the initial trip, however, Clements pitched that it should instead focus on the daughter of a chief. They learned during their trip that Polynesians had stopped voyaging about three thousand years ago, then picked it back up again a thousand years later. No one is really sure why that is, so Clements and Musker saw this as a great story background and set it at the tail end of that non-voyaging era. The film itself took about five years to develop, partially due to re-writes. Clements and Musker recruited people from all over Oceania to consult on the film and make sure it was as accurate as possible and would not offend anyone from the film’s locale. Moana became the duo’s first CG movie, having only worked with traditional animation before. Disney stopped doing traditional animation after Winnie the Pooh and the water animation would have taken forever if done traditionally.
Moana’s story evolved over time to become what we know today. Originally focusing on Maui, it shifted to Moana. Moana originally had five or six brothers, with her being the youngest sibling and her dealing with issues of gender. While there is a rough animated sequence in the special features of the video release, this story-line was quickly abandoned, with the directors feeling the movie should be about Moana finding herself. Another draft of the story had Moana’s father as the one who wants to start voyaging again, but they eventually found that it cast a shadow over Moana, so instead they created Moana’s grandmother. Her grandmother would encourage her to voyage, while her father would try to keep Moana on the island at all costs. Another story idea focused on Moana going to rescue her father who was lost at sea. The only part of that idea that stayed was a small part of Moana’s father’s backstory involved having an incident at sea which caused him to ban voyaging. Production started in earnest and it wasn’t until 2015 (a year before it was supposed to be released) that the team realized there were major story problems. Don Hall and Chris Williams, who had just finished directing Big Hero 6, were brought in to help iron out the story at the late stage in development. Musker and and Clements were already working 12 hour days, 6 days a week, so the help was welcome. Luckily, production wrapped in time for the late 2016 release.
The entire cast of Moana is from somewhere in the Oceania, like Samoa, New Zealand, and Hawaii, except for current Disney mainstay, Alan Tudyk. Tudyk is from Texas. Close enough? With representation becoming more and more important in movies, it was a no-brainer for Disney to go after people who are actually from the locales they are representing. The filmmakers went through hundreds of auditions to find the perfect Moana, ultimately finding it in 14 yr old high school freshman, Auli’i Cravalho. Production had already modeled Moana’s character, so the fact that Cravalho looks like Moana was pure coincidence. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was an obvious choice for the cocky and seemingly selfish demi-god Maui. While he pulled off the character well, his singing sort of leaves something to be desired, but it’s not Russell Crowe levels in Les Miserables. The only other “stars” cast were Jermaine Clement as hoarder coconut crab, Tamatoa, and Alan Tudyk as Moana’s unwitting stowaway, Hei Hei. Yes, Disney paid Tudyk to just make a bunch of chicken noises. Genius, right?
Something that got people’s attention early in Moana’s development was the inclusion of Lin-Manuel Miranda for the film’s music. This was announced right in the middle of Hamilton-mania, so people legit freaked out, as they should have. Incidentally, Miranda was hired on before Hamilton became big, and instead was brought on for his work on In The Heights. Not everything was done by Miranda, as Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foa’i were also brought on to round out Moana’s songs, with the score being done completely by Mancina. Songs in the movie range from English, to Samoan, to the little spoken Tokelauan. How Far I’ll Go is the movie’s “I Want” song, and clearly shows that the filmmakers were going for traditional music mixed with Broadway sensibilities. Songs that are completely in Samoan or Tokelauan were done by Foa’i with Miranda and Mancina doing most of the rest in conjunction. One song done completely by Miranda, Shiny, was inspired by a Flight of the Conchords tribute to David Bowie at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 2004 and Miranda listening to Bowie non-stop after the artist’s untimely death. How Far I’ll Go was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, but ultimately lost to City of Stars from La La Land. If Miranda had won, he would have achieved an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) at the young age of 37. To put that in perspective, only 12 people have achieved this feat, and it took some of them over 40 years to do it. Miranda has won all the others in less than ten. What I’m trying to tell you is that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius and everything he touches is gold. I’m fully on the Miranda hype train, so I’m admittedly a little biased. Getting back to the soundtrack, it’s very good. Good enough that I’ve listened to it at least 100 times and haven’t gotten completely sick of it. My son is obsessed with Moana and demands to listen to it everyday, and my wife and I usually don’t mind going along with it.
Moana was a smash success for Disney, and along with Zootopia, made 2016 a very good year for Disney in general. The film grossed $642 million against an estimated $150 million budget, marking the fourth straight Disney animated film that went over the $500 million mark. The movie was a hit with critics, garnering a 96% on rotten tomatoes. Critics were happy to see a powerful female lead and good story to back it up. The animation was also lauded along with the character development. This is a solid Disney musical, on par with the Disney Renaissance and is up there with Tangled for me in terms of newer Disney musicals. Disney has continued their trek to create a strong female character that isn’t defined by the men around her. As far as I’m concerned, this is the best they’ve done in that respect. Moana feels like a real person, not a caricature or a character without fault. Moana makes mistakes and she even gives up hope at one point. Moana is led to believe that Maui is the only one that can restore the heart to Te Fiti, but in the end she realizes that it is up to her to restore the heart and save her people. She cannot and should not depend on Maui for that. Maui is an integral part of saving the day, but if you think about it, there is a way that Moana could have achieved everything she needed to do without him. It would help that she knew how to sail, though. Moana serves as Maui’s redemption, allowing him to realize that he is more than just his hook. The Ocean (yes, it is a character in this film) chose Moana to not only to restore the heart, but to also save Maui. Also something that is refreshing is that Moana isn't the same as Ariel, who is trying to be somewhere else. Moana is going outside the reef to save her people. She leaves and doesn't badmouth where she came from. She loves her island, her people, and still wants to be their leader someday. Getting off the island had nothing to do with just getting away or just to disobey her father.
The movie is not without its faults. Pua, Moana’s pet pig, kind of gets the shaft in this movie. He’s in the very beginning and then disappears until the very end. It doesn’t hurt the movie that much, but it just makes it seem like the character is just around to sell toys. Hei Hei turns out to be integral to the plot, but a funny looking chicken will sell a lot less than a cute piglet. The second gripe I have with this movie is that sometimes the jokes fall flat. This has been a problem with Disney since the 2000’s, with a few movies escaping it, but most have a few moments that just make me cringe, and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’m just getting older, maybe I’m looking too hard at movies that some would consider are made for kids. I’m talking about any moment that took me out of the movie, including the “tweeting” joke and Moana eating the pork in front of Pua. They didn’t do it for me, that’s it. These are nitpicks in an otherwise excellent movie. If you’ve been out of Disney for a while and are wondering if the movies have gotten better since the 2000’s, yes they have. Disney has been on a roll since around 2008 or 2009, depending on who you ask. I’m sure it won’t last forever. Every animation company goes through some lulls and Disney is no different. Disney took a break for 2017 and will be returning in 2018 with Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. This is followed by Frozen 2 in 2019 and Gigantic in 2020. If you’re keeping score, that’s two sequels in a row for a studio that has rarely done official sequels. Sure most of the Disney movies have a sequel, but they are released on video only and are not part of the canon. Before Ralph Breaks the Internet, Disney had only three sequels released in theaters as part of the canon: Rescuers Down Under, Fantasia 2000, and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. This is a disappointing trend for Disney. Pixar has fully committed to doing sequels so it’s too late for them, but hopefully Disney realizes quickly that people want original material, not re-treads. I’m looking at you live-action remakes!