Moana: How filmmakers turned a demigod into a sidekick
'There was just something about building this around a young girl that just felt right'
The legendary Disney directors behind Aladdin and Hercules are taking another trip inside a beloved cultural myth, although this one spends a lot more time on the open sea.
Moana is Disney’s next great heroine, an original creation, and the latest in a string of empowering female figures in the studio’s recent CG releases. Living 3,000 years ago in ancient Oceania, she’s the teenage daughter of a Pacific chief (to be clear, don’t call her a princess just yet) who finds herself pulled to her people’s lost roots as once-great voyagers of the ocean.
But although newcomer Auli’i Cravalho voices the title role, she’s not alone on her journey. She’s joined on her quest by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the voice of the scene-stealing demigod Maui, who is himself based on famous Polynesian myth (which has dozens of iterations in different cultures). In fact, directors John Musker and Ron Clements loved the discovery of this mythological being so much, they revealed to EW that the film was once almost entirely based around him.
Thinking about new film ideas and taking inspiration from the visuals of the South Pacific, Musker stumbled on a whim down a rabbit hole of Polynesian mythology. “I dove into that and discovered what a rich vein of storytelling it was, and in particular, the character of Maui, whom I had never heard of,” he recalls. “This guy’s a bigger-than-life character, he’s a shape-shifter and a trickster, he’s got these superpowers, he’s covered in tattoos — all these things, like, in animation that I thought would be so much fun to do, and yet I had never heard of him, which made it even more appealing to me because I thought, wow, people haven’t done something and he’s such a rich character.”
Consulting with co-director Ron Clements, whom Musker has frequently partnered with on several Disney classics including The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid, the duo began to develop an adventure tale around Maui. “We might have even had a pet name for him, like Mighty Maui,” adds Clements. Their tale involved another myth, based on a female character whose lover had been kidnapped and who, as a result, enlisted Maui to help her rescue mission. But Moana, this was not.
Disney animation creative chief John Lasseter loved the ancient island atmosphere, but pushed Musker and Clements to take their story further and “dig deeper into the research.” As a result, the duo embarked on a trip to the South Pacific that introduced them to a world of deeper cultural connections: Fishing, dancing, sailing, and even more oceanic myths that stretched further into human truth than superpowered demigods. “There are a lot of myths that deal with female empowerment in the South Pacific,” says Musker. “On the island of Morea, we were talking with the Tahitian elders about [how] you’ve got to know your mountain. Unless you know your mountain, you don’t know who you are — and that was a big thing for us.”
The pair came back renewed and reinvigorated to tell a story that focused more on family and respect for nature. “We developed three more possible stories, and the one we liked best was the idea of this girl named Moana, who felt connected to her voyaging past but was growing out of fashion with the world that she’s grown up in and feels this pull, but doesn’t know why,” says Musker. “Right from the pitch, it was a coming-of-age story. There was just something about building this around a young girl that just felt right.”
Maui, to be sure, is still a part of the tale, but you’ll have to wait until Nov. 23 to see how even this demigod takes side-saddle to the kick-ass heroics of your new favorite Disney star.