Moana directors talk about making their “love letter to the islands”

Disney directing duo John Musker and Ron Clements talk making Moana

Over the last almost 30 years, Ron Clements and John Musker have become a something of a Disney directing dream team. They first worked together back in 1986 on The Great Mouse Detective, and since then have collaborated on The Little MermaidAladdinHerculesTreasure Planet and The Princess And The Frog.

The pair recently came together again to make more Disney magic on last year’s hit Moana, which Musker and Clements started to develop in 2011 after Musker became interested in Polynesian mythology.

“I had read many novels set in the area and was very familiar with art of the area by Westerners like Paul Gauguin and others who portrayed a beautiful, rich world of saturated colours,” Musker tells us. “I had been to Hawaii, but never to other Pacific islands, and as we researched deeper, the area seemed like such a wonderful setting and milieu to explore.

“I started reading Polynesian mythology and learned about the demigod Maui who is a central figure in the Pacific,” he continues. “He’s a shapeshifter, larger than life, with numerous tales about him across the islands, a cultural icon, a character who seemed ideally suited to animation.”

In order to make their Polynesian tale as authentic as possible, the directors and other members of Moana‘s crew did extensive research. “John Lasseter [the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios] is a fanatic about research for Walt Disney Animation films, and once we settled in on this idea he felt we needed to dive in and learn as much about this world as we possibly could,” says Clements.

This led them to their first trip to the Pacific Islands. They started by visiting Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti, where they spent a lot of time in villages, sat with elders, sailed on canoes and participated in ceremonies.

“The gorgeous setting and Maui became our jumping off points,” says Musker, “and in diving deeper into research we broadened and deepened the storyline from lessons we learned during research trips to the area while connecting with master navigators, cultural experts, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, master tattooists and beyond from the islands – so as much as the locale influenced us, so did the people.”

“We met so many people and learned so many things about navigation, the island peoples’ philosophy about the ocean and nature – many themes that made their way into the story,” Clements adds. “Once we got back, we pitched it to JL, and he was very excited about what we learned.”

Musker and Clements with producer Osnat Shurer and star Auli’i Cravalho

Aside from its gorgeous animation, amazing songs and beautiful story (we’re fans if you can’t tell), one of the reasons Moana has managed to win itself such a large group of admirers is the characters and, more particularly, the life actors Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) and Dwayne Johnson (Maui) breathe into them. Clements and Musker couldn’t agree more.

“Interestingly, they fit their characters extremely well,” insists Clements. “DJ is a bit of a demigod himself and a larger than life character. He’s charming, funny and great to work with, like Maui who is a very fun, light character but there are some serious parts of Maui that DJ has done such a great job diving into.

“He was cast before Auli’i, and there was a question if we could find the match for DJ, but we found the perfect match in Auli’i, who was 14 years old when she auditioned for the role. She’s fearless, feisty, cheeky and fun and willing to take on all challenges and embodies so much of the spirit and courage of what makes the character Moana special. In my mind, they fuse together – DJ and Maui are the same and Auli’i and Moana are the same.”

“Both DJ and Auli’i have roots in the islands,” adds Musker. “Auli’i is born and raised in Hawai’i, and she brings with her a love of her culture. DJ is African American and Samoan and is very proud of his roots, so this is a way for him to celebrate the Samoan culture he grew up in, and he really takes a sense of pride and responsibility in this, as does Auli’i. I think they both see this [project] as a love letter to the islands and the people of the islands.”

Moana is available to buy on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now. Get all the latest fantasy news with every issue of SciFiNow.