Ron Clements, John Musker and Jared Bush set sail for Disney’s new masterpiece

November 16, 2016 Danny Munso

Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for spearheading Disney’s second golden age of animation. Their films The Little Mermaid and Aladdin were the crown jewels of a group of movies that led the company out of a dark period and back to prosperity. After almost 40 years at the studio, that partnership is still delivering: Their latest film, Moana, is the studio’s next classic. The prolific duo were coming off 2009’s terrific The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s final hand-drawn effort, and in search of their next project. After a few false starts, Musker became intrigued with the idea of setting a movie somewhere the studio had never ventured: the Pacific Islands. “I had never really been there but my interest led me to reading a lot of Polynesian mythology and I discovered what a rich vein of storytelling it was,” he says. “The two became particularly intrigued with the demigod Maui, a shapeshifting trickster who was known in various Oceanic cultures, but usually in slightly different form depending on the culture. “He was a very rich character and I thought why has this never been done before?” Musker recalls. “Ron and I got together and we picked a couple of them and made a pitch to John Lasseter.”


The Disney Animation and Pixar creative chief, liked the direction of the story but wanted the directors to immerse themselves in research and visit the islands they would be depicting. So Musker, Clements and their creative team headed west to the likes of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and many others to take a deep dive into Oceanic culture. The pair met not just with village chiefs and elders but people of all sorts from linguists and anthropologists to fisherman and archaeologists to even tattoo artists and dancers. They were inspired by everyone but thought they found a hook to their story while speaking with the navigators, men and women who know their way around the ocean as if it were the back of their palm. “We learned about the history of navigation and how these people were really the greatest navigators the world had ever seen,” Clements says. “We learned about their connection to the ocean and how the ocean itself had feelings. We learned about their connection to nature and the connection to their ancestors and past. We didn’t know any of these things beforehand and it really led us to change the whole concept of the story.” Clements and Musker still wanted Maui to be a part of the story, but this time as a supporting player to their film’s new star: Moana, a 16-year-old daughter of the chief of Motunui who discovers that her ancestors were great way finders and navigators and then sets out on a journey across the ocean in search of a way to save her people. They are in danger because years earlier, Maui had stolen the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island that was the cause of all life in the area. Maui gets into a battle over the heart with mysterious lava demon Te Kā and loses the heart to the bottom of the ocean. Without the heart of Te Fiti, Moana’s island is in danger of dying out.

The movie is not about a character finding her inner strength (she’s already strong at the start of this film) or about falling in love as many Disney films have mined in the past. Moana’s journey is one of self-discovery and uncovering one’s true identity. “This is a hero’s journey story and a coming of age story,” Musker says. “We had her finding her inner voice and true nature in the face of adversity. That was different. She’s this action/adventure heroine who would have these difficult physical challenges in front of her and it seemed fun to make her physically capable in this sort of universe.”

The studio brought in Eagle vs Shark and Boy writer/director Taika Waititi to pen the first draft for the script that featured Clements and Musker’s story, but Waititi had to leave the project in 2014 to helm a little Marvel movie to be released next year called Thor: Ragnarok. Replacing him would be Jared Bush, one of the leading creative voices at Disney Animation and the co-director and co-writer of Zootopia. That film was just wrapping up which freed him to take the reins on what would be the final version of Moana. Right before Bush came aboard, Clements and Musker had made two crucial decisions that affected the rest of the creative process: they cast then-14-year-old unknown actress Auli’l Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Maui.

Quite a bit of Moana’s story was in place, so the main focus of Bush’s work was to flesh out and redefine the relationship between Moana and Maui. “My job was to take Dwayne’s voice and infuse that into Maui’s character,” Bush explains. “What was exciting about that is Dwayne is obviously the most charismatic character on the planet but he’s not the hero of the movie. Moana is. So by definition, she has to go toe to toe with him and eclipse him. So it became this writing challenge where she has to go up against Dwayne and the relationship between them has to be equal on both sides. The majority of the movie is just the two of them on a boat in the middle of the ocean and that relationship has to be compelling on its own because that’s what our audience will be following. So I tried to find ways they could challenge each other and find ways for each of them to learn more about each other as the story progressed.” Rather than work on the entire script at once, Bush would concentrate on key scenes that were Moana and Maui centric every time the creative team knew Johnson or Cravalho was scheduled for a recording session. Due to scheduling, the two actors never actually recorded together so their counterparts were played by Bush himself during recording. “I would be physically in the booth standing next to either of them and I would be reading opposite them,” he says. “I would play Moana to Dwayne’s Maui or vice versa and we would work on that chemistry between these characters and figure out what works and what didn’t.”

After a recording session, the filmmakers would do a screening of the animation with the actor’s vocals and things would be reassessed time and time again; Bush estimates Johnson and Cravalho did up to twenty different sessions on the film. “Sometimes the vibe between the characters would be really good but the dialogue wouldn’t have the story content we needed,” Bush continues. “Or sometimes we’d realize this is exactly what we need story wise, but it doesn’t sound fun enough or they’re not challenging each other enough.” The filmmakers needed to make clear the fact that, for much of the film, Maui is the true antagonist to Moana and the main obstacle to her completing her journey. The two have a hard time seeing eye to eye and Maui, though charming, doesn’t really care about the fate of Moana’s people enough to risk another battle with Te Kā. “In some of the early iterations of the movie, he came off as too much of a curmudgeon or he wasn’t fun enough or was being negative at times,” Musker admits. “You had to find that line where he could be redeemed. You want him to be a likable narcissist and those two things don’t often go together. Jared really found a way to make him appealing and made it so you didn’t lose your affection for him no matter what he did.” Bush puts the credit at someone else’s foot: Johnson’s. “He’s so damn charming that he can say terrible things but you love him in spite of it,” Bush laughs. “He throws Moana off the boat and basically leaves her to die several times but somehow it’s endearing.” Bush found the proper empathy and understanding for why Maui acts the way he does by going into the psychology of the character. “I figured out why he’s doing what he’s doing and, eventually, you let Moana crack through that armor and find out what is at this guy’s core and what’s motivating him,” he continues. “That humanizes him and he shifts from being the antagonist to becoming a true partner to her.”

One of the hallmarks of the Maui legend throughout Polynesian cultures is that his body is covered by tattoos that tell his history, both the good and the bad. Clements and Musker had the idea early on that one of those tattoos would be a mini version of Maui himself and be its own character, interacting with Maui and giving the audience a window into what was actually inside Maui. “The mini Maui is like his Jiminy Cricket,” Musker says. “It was a way to soften him a bit and show his conflicted nature. You can tell that he liked her more than he was willing to admit. So even if he wasn’t really warming up to her on the outside, the mini Maui showed us there was some part of him connecting with her.”

During their initial research trip, Clements and Musker would hear stories islanders would tell about the ocean as if it were a sentient being. So, they reasoned, why not have the ocean act as its own character during the film? “We sailed with a navigator in Fiji who took us out on a canoe like the one in the movie,” Clements says. “He told us you have to speak gently to the ocean and he caressed it as if it were alive. Then everyone else told us similar things. So, the ocean really had to be a character.” In the film, the ocean interacts mainly with Moana as a way to keep her on the right path. In one of the moments Bush described earlier, Maui would often throw off the boat as a way to get rid of her, only for the ocean to deposit her right back where she was. Thankfully, Clements and Musker had experience with this type of character in one of the previous films. “It’s like the magic carpet in Aladdin,” Clements notes. “It doesn’t have a voice and it’s a pantomime character but we wanted to be able to communicate what it’s thinking and feeling.”

The film’s most moving sequence comes near the beginning where toddler Moana walks down to the ocean who recognizes her as someone worthy of bestowing a great gift: the heart of Te Fiti, the object stolen by Maui thought lost to time. In a scene that has zero words and only music, the ocean communicates to Moana that she will be the one to restore the heart to its rightful place and save her people. Amazingly, the scene was the first one completed for the film because it was also used as a test by animators to see how well they could animate an ocean that appeared to be alive. “That scene was inspired by the works of (legendary animator Hayao) Miyazaki,” Musker notes. “He always had a girl in his films who had a really close relationship with nature. That moment gave us such a powerful feeling. You didn’t need to know the content of words there. It was the feeling and mood of the scene and the song that draws you into the world. It’s a very warm moment.”

One unique part of the Moana creative process was an idea of Clements and Musker’s to create the Oceanic Story Trust, a group of individuals they met during their research period who were available to the filmmakers to run ideas by in order to make sure the culture was being represented as accurately as possible. The dozen members of the Story Trust included linguists, educators, navigators, and more and would be available both via email and in person to view in-progress work. When he came aboard, Bush was impressed at the feedback he received and how invaluable it ended up being to his script. “Every time I would change anything in the script or a new idea came in, those were sent to our partners in the Pacific Islands for their feedback,” he says. “More often than not, they said you guys are trying to be too careful. Don’t be too careful because we want our heritage to be portrayed as this beautiful, fun, entertaining thing.”

The major twist at the end of Moana (do not read further if you have not seen the film) is that Te Fiti and Te Kā are the same being; Te Fiti, devastated at losing her heart turned dark and transformed from a beautiful island into the lava demon Moana and Maui must battle in the movie’s climax. The idea for that twist came from Waititi and it latest throughout the entire production. But even though that idea was locked in early, how to derive a satisfying conclusion from it was something the filmmakers struggled with right up until the end. An early version had a major battle between Te Kā and Maui, where Maui dispatches the demon. It’s only then that Moana realizes Te Kā’s true identity and she seeks a way to bring Te Fiti back. “It didn’t feel special enough and it didn’t feel different enough,” Bush explains. “We’ve seen movies where the big bad is killed in violent ways but it felt like this movie wanted to say something different.”

Another issue with that version was that Moana was sidelined a bit while Maui and Te Kā did battle. The creative team looked to the theme of the film for their solution: the search for identity. “That runs through all the characters,” Bush continues. “Moana is on this journey to find herself. Maui is someone searching for his identity. Moana’s people have lost their identity. And Te Fiti and lost her identity and become Te Kā. So it made more sense that Moana would try and find common ground with Te Kā and save her in that way. That’s something only she would do in that moment. That became a really exciting new twist.”

Bush admits he struggled the most with another scene toward the conclusion of the film where Maui suffers a crisis of confidence and deems their journey as having no chance of success. He leaves Moana in the middle of the ocean and she begins to give up hope. “We wanted that moment to feel very real,” Bush says. “For the whole movie, Moana believes that Maui is the only one who can restore the heart of Te Fiti. So when he leaves her alone, it was very tricky. She’s such a proactive character that to have her completely give up felt false. But we needed her to believe that there was no other avenue.” With Moana at her lowest point, the filmmakers debated how she would get back on course. The solution was an appearance by her deceased grandmother, Gramma Tala, a key figure from the film’s first act who dies before Moana sets sail on her journey. Though we see Tala on screen, in Bush’s mind that is just a visualization of the conversation Moana is having inside herself. “I wanted that to feel like we were watching her psychology play out on screen,” he explains. “It was different parts of her inner self helping her find her way. Even though we see Tala on the boat, whether or not she is actually there is in question. But her emotions and lessons that we’ve already seen in the movie are what Moana is tapping into. It’s a psychological study of how someone gets through the darkest times and decide they’re going to persevere in spite of it.”

Moana is the daughter of the village chief – so not technically royalty – but that doesn’t stop Maui from labeling her a princess. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick,” he tells her at one point in the film, “you’re a princess.” But it’s a sign of progress for Disney that you not find a romance anywhere in the film, a first for the studio when it comes to movies centered on princesses. In fact, if you look at Disney’s recent slate of films like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, you will barely find a hint of a romance in the plot. Even Frozen was more of a love story between two sisters than anything else. It’s a nice sign of evolution for a studio that has taken heat for its portrayal of men swooping in a white horse to save the princess that giving Moana a love interest was never even broached. “She doesn’t need anyone but herself to save the day,” Bush says. “So putting a love interest on top of all that was going on in the movie felt unimportant.” Perhaps Musker puts it best. “She’s a princess,” he says. “But she’s a badass.”