Only a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean in a small-ish Santa Monica press room, journalists chatted amongst themselves about Disney’s latest animated musical, Moana.
They had just seen the film the night before, and as they waited for the film’s press conference to begin, they just couldn’t help but talk about it. And it’s well understood that conversations among critics can tend to get…critical.
This felt different, though. Instead of the typical wave of “meh” and “it was okay,” the air was filled with “I laughed so hard when-“ and “ – it was just SO CUTE,” accompanied by the constant, joyful hum of the film’s soundtrack. The humming may or may not have been coming from me. Anyway –
Moana follows in the footsteps of prior animated Disney musicals that rely on exotic legends to tell their story. Moana, the 16-year-old future chief of her village must decide whether she’ll follow in her father’s footsteps, or explore the ocean that has called to her throughout her life.
Once she (spoiler) decides to embark on a journey across the ocean to find the demi-God, Maui, nothing will stop her from protecting her home. Auli’i Cravalho, the Hawaiian-born actress who lent her voice to the film’s titular hero, said that she could connect with the character, the setting, and just about everything other than being sent out on a quest to help a demi-God save the world.
“I am deeply rooted to my culture,” said Cravalho. “I’ve grown up in Hawaii all my life. The mythology and folklore of Maui is in our curriculum. I’ve listened to his stories as bedtime stories. I literally grew up with pigs and chickens.”
The creative team behind Moana frequently visited the Pacific islands and met with masters of navigation, tattoo artists, and weavers to make sure that they got the centuries-old stories and traditions just right.
“They became loosely what we called our ‘Oceanic story trust,’” said producer Osnat Shurer. “Every tattoo was checked with our master tattoo artist, the dances were all choreographed by one of our consultants, and I think lifelong friendships were formed as well.”
It was on one of these trips to New Zealand that the directors, John Musker and Ron Clements; the actors, Dwayne Johnson and Auli’i Cravalho; and the songwriters, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Opetaia Foa’i all got to meet in person for the first time. Foa’i, however, was not introduced to Lin-Manuel Miranda as the award-winning creator of In the Heights and Hamilton, but as the winner of the dance contest they had all just witnessed.
“Luckily, Puerto Ricans can shake their hips to a rhythm,” said Miranda. The trip however, was only partially about dance.
“With the job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand,” said Miranda. “We really wanted to find the pulse in this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.”
We had the opportunity to ask Miranda, Foa’i, Musker, and Clements exactly how they managed to perfectly blend old and new Disney musical magic into something that felt new while satisfying the tradition of the Disney musical.
Miranda, a life-long fan of the genre, was happy to respond first by gesturing to his directors, John Musker and Ron Clements – the directors of both Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
“When I first interviewed for this job, I walked into a room with Ron and John, the makers of my favorite Disney film of all time, and I said ‘you’re the reason I even get to walk into this room,’” said Miranda. “And I think I probably scared them a bit.”
It wasn’t Miranda’s legendary high energy that intimidated them either. It was his encyclopedic knowledge of musicals. Specifically, the ones they directed themselves.
“I quoted some obscure part of The Little Mermaid that they had since forgotten about,” said Miranda, before returning to the question. “Look, I love those movies and you wanna maintain the best of the Disney traditions, but at the same time, we’re telling a very unique story from this very unique part of the world.”
Miranda notes that this may be the only film in history to have the Disney logo accompanied by a primal cry that one would hear from a tribe in Oceania. The voice performer behind the cry? Songwriter Opetaia Foa’i’s own daughter.
While Moana strives (and succeeds) to achieve a sense of cultural dignity, it also loves to take frequent detours through familiar waters.
For instance, “You’re Welcome,” a jazzy tune in the same spirit as Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me,” serves as a fun-filled introduction to the character of Maui, played by Dwayne Johnson.
Johnson provides both the speaking and the singing voice for Maui, but balked a bit when asked to describe how it felt to record a song for a Disney musical.
“I’m happy to lead this story,” said Miranda with a smile.
“You’ll have to,” said Johnson.
“I’ve had a lot of reporters ask ‘how did you get the Rock to sing?’” said Miranda. “That’s not what happened here. He was really excited for this.”
Sure, he was excited, but how did Miranda or the directors know that he could sing? Miranda had the answer.
“I went to YouTube, where the answers always lie,” said Miranda. “And there was a time…[when Dwayne was wrestling]…when he would pull out a guitar and taunt whichever town he was in. Like ‘can’t wait to get out of Chicago…’
Miranda said that it was just enough to get a sense of Johnson’s vocal range.
“Once I had the title ‘You’re Welcome,’ which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love and root for him, we were off to the races.”
Okay. Off to the races. But how? Miranda was generous enough to give us all a golden tip: It’s all about getting into the character’s head.
“The rest of it was just writing lyrics that embody the spirit of Maui, who is just this amazing demigod trickster god,” said Miranda. For Moana, however, he needed to make it more personal.
“The way she feels the call to the sea is the way I feel about writing music and making movies and singing songs,” said Miranda. “I was 16 years old and living off 200th street in Manhattan and thinking ‘the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large,’ so I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.”
It wasn’t only the songwriters that got professional advice either. He had advice for writers of all stripes.
“When you start writing, you’re turning on a faucet the water is brown and it’s full of whatever has just been in there and clogged up and waiting to come out, and then you just keep writing and writing until the water is clear and you can find your own voice.”
Miranda also admitted that his water was brown and murky when he started work on Moana, and for a reason that many Disney fans can probably appreciate.
“The first time I sat at my piano to work on something for this,” said Miranda, “I remember thinking “don’t think about ‘Let It Go’, don’t think about ‘Let It Go…’”
Then he took a deep breath and bellowed “Let it go! Let it gooooo!”
Luckily for those that will be watching Moana over the next few days, Miranda’s water turned as clear as the waters of the Pacific.