7 reasons why Disney’s ‘MOANA’ is a must-see sensation

MOANA is an adventurous, tenacious and compassionate 16-year-old who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. Along the way, she discovers the one thing she's always sought: her own identity. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (“The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “The Princess & the Frog”) and featuring newcomer Auli'I Cravalho as the voice of Moana, Walt Disney Animation Studios' “Moana” sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Newcomer Auli’I Cravalho voices our newest Disney heroine, Moana, in MOANA. ©2016 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

In these past six years, Disney has cemented itself as creators of subversive animated fairy tales for a modern generation with such films as TANGLED and FROZEN. It’s imperative we have another heroine who’s evocative of that same pioneering creative spirit – and boy do we find her in Disney’s MOANA. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (THE LITTLE MERMAID) return to the “House of Mouse” with the tale of a young woman (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) setting off on a destiny-driven quest filled with adventure and profundity. Not only does this bad-ass dynamo battle enemies on the high sea, but she aids in restoring history whilst writing her own unique story.

At the film’s recent first look presentation and press day, a multitude of Disney creatives gave us a behind the scenes look at all the blood, sweat and tears that went into crafting a timeless animated classic such as this one.

7. Character designs came first – then voices. It’s pretty incredible that the lead character of an animated film looks almost exactly alike to her real-life counterpart. But this is exactly what happened when Disney creatives cast lead Auli’i Cravalho. Said Musker, “The design came first. She just happened to look like the design. It’s a total coincidence. We don’t know, when we look for actors, who match how they look. It’s really about how they sound and how they come across. We try not to be swayed by the way they look, but certainly it’s a wonderful plus that she looks alike.”

6. Culturally sound. Not only did research trips prove to be a must, but a story trust needed to be established in order to assure the islands’ cultural heritage would be preserved with as much authenticity as possible. Producer Osnat Shurer stated, “The research is at the very heart of our storytelling. [We] went to the South Pacific – Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti,  Moorea. The visit there changed the vision of what this movie could be and what this story could be. When we listened to the people, that was when we really touched the beauty of the Pacific Islands. From the early trips, we met archeologists, anthropologists, fisherman, sailors, tattoo masters, choreographers, weavers. Many of these people remained in contact with us. We created the Oceanic Story Trust and we checked in with them constantly – checked in on story, design choices. This wouldn’t be what it is without their guidance and input.” Since many islands inspired the filmmakers, they created one island to embody it all: Motunui. Musker said, “We built the whole story around the true fact of Pacific Islanders being the greatest navigators the world has ever seen. We wanted to celebrate that.”

5. Eye for details. They say God is in the details, but never has this been truer than in the case of MOANA. The titular character’s costume has small details eagle-eyed viewers will pick up on. Vis Dev Artist Neysa Bové, who worked on Moana’s costume designs, said, “It’s really to develop the character and personality with what they’re wearing. We had gone through tons of different designs for [Moana’s] necklace before we landed on this one – abalone. For the design, I added a curve to the abalone and it has a juxtaposition between land and sea. Her, being a voyager, she’s looking at the stars. I added some star carvings to the top of it so it’s very specific to her.”

In addition to the details in Moana’s costume, Maui’s multitude of tattoos tell of his great deeds, but serve a dual purpose. Musker said, “One of these tattoos that we feature prominently we call ‘Mini-Maui.’ He’s the Jiminy Cricket of his conscience.” Head of Animation Hyrum Osmond said, “The tattoos presented a unique opportunity for us to collaborate CG animation with 2D animation.” These tattoos spring to life courtesy of the legendary animator Eric Goldberg. “Maui has his entire body covered in tattoos and those tattoos describe his accomplishments – his feats of daring do. Within them, is a little figure of Maui, performing these feats. As the story developed, he became a character within his own rite. He’s got a personality and function in the story. He’s his alter-ego and his conscience. The CG animators and the hand-drawn animators are in the trenches together. We’re working on the scenes at the same time. What we’ve had is this great back and forth collaboration.” Even Maui’s hair is its own creature. Head of Characters and Tech Animation Carlos Cabral said, “It’s something we’ve never done before, having that level of realism as well as artistry and performance.” Goldberg added, “They can art direct the hair here so that if Maui jumps down, his hair groups into the back into a shape which helps that animation become even more dynamic. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t see in animation.” Cabral said, “You’ll see underwater hair and hair that’s wet. It was very difficult, but because of the technology we developed, you’ll see a lot more interaction than in any other movie.”

4. MOANA weaves elements of fantasy into reality. Though MOANA is based in reality, there’s a  fantastical element coursing through its veins. Musker and Clements chose root their tale in historical truths that Pacific Islanders’ thousand year exploratory missions mysteriously ceased. However, that’s where they diverge, theorizing how the spirit of exploration once again returned. “What if there happened to be one young girl that was responsible for things starting up again,” asked Clements. And that young lady is Moana, who’s as adventurous as she is fearless. Her quest? To reunite Maui [voiced by Dwayne “The Rock Johnson], a shape-shifting demi-god warrior with animated tattoos, with the heart of Te Fiti, a missing jewel Te-Ka, a demon of earth and fire, also seeks. With whatever story they set out to tell, the directing duo always incorporate things they could never do in live-action. Musker said that meant, “making the ocean a character, building it around Maui, who’s a shape-shifter, and making the tattoo a character.” Clements explained further, “The element of trying to create a world that you can enter, spend an hour and a half and feel like you’re transported. That you come to believe the characters and situations are real – that’s what Disney films did for us as kids. That’s what we hope our films will do.”

3. Music plays a huge part. “In the Pacific Islands, music is huge. It accompanies every activity,” said Shurer. “We thought it was an incredible opportunity – a very unique moment – where we can take contemporary sound and combine it with the deep roots, heart-pounding rhythms that you’d find in the South Pacific.” This led the filmmakers to team up with Opetaia Foa’i, composer Mark Mancina and the Tony Award-winning genius Lin-Manuel Miranda. Screenwriter Jared Bush said, “They’re all our partners story-wise. We like to have the songs propel the characters and story forward. It’s really great given the limited amount of time we have to have the songs help with that. As we’re doing that over the course of the movie, we’re trying to find moments where it’s an important character moment where they’ll sing and open it up. We spend a lot of time where those moments should go.” Story Artist David Derrick added, “We’d board the scenes out without music initially – the scene has to work without it. After that, depending on Lin’s availability, he’d craft a song and we’d go back and forth.” Bush augmented, “It’s a really fun part of the process. There were many songs written that aren’t a part of the movie because eventually that character would change, or the story would change, and we couldn’t put it there. We changed where the ‘We Know The Way’ song was – that used to start the movie.”

The MOANA story team was charged with saving the character "Heihei" from being cut from the film. These story boards illustrate an action sequence from the film in which the Kakamora are trying to steal the Heart of Te Fiti from Moana and Maui. In the initial version (top row), the Kakamora steal the heart and are pursued by Moana who captures it back. In the new versoin (bottom row), rooster Heihei first swallows the Heart of Te Fiti, and the chase ensues between the Kakamora and Moana, only this time they're fighting to maintain posession of Heihei. Artist: Sunmee Joh, Story Artist.

The MOANA story team was charged with saving the character “Heihei” from being cut from the film. These story boards illustrate an action sequence from the film in which the Kakamora are trying to steal the Heart of Te Fiti from Moana and Maui. In the initial version (top row), the Kakamora steal the heart and are pursued by Moana who captures it back. In the new versoin (bottom row), rooster Heihei first swallows the Heart of Te Fiti, and the chase ensues between the Kakamora and Moana, only this time they’re fighting to maintain posession of Heihei. Artist: Sunmee Joh, Story Artist.

2. The evolution of Heihei. Heihei the dimwitted chicken is one of Moana’s two breakout sidekicks, who, unlike in most animated features, doesn’t talk – only squawks. The fine-feathered stowaway is also the one character who experienced the greatest change during the production years, evolving from a genius to a goofball. Musker elucidated, “In earlier treatments, he was this smart, kind of ornery guy, but he didn’t seem quite as funny as we wanted him to be. So they took his IQ and brought it way, way down.” “He may be the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation,” Clements concurred. Story Artist Sunmee Joh elaborated, “Through story changes Heihei wound up on the chopping block. We had only 48 hours to save him. He had a lot of attitude – he was very full of himself. He was the Chief’s watchdog. He was mean for no good reason – and judgey. So the story team got together and thought, What could we do with him? What if we made him dumber? That came out of our pitch to John Lasseter, making him stand out in a not-so-bright way. It wasn’t enough to make him sillier or dumber. We had to find a way to make him a complication for Moana and to add to her journey.”

1. Dream BIGGER, kids. Disney’s current marketing campaign is centered around the slogan (that, thanks to a friend, I personally can not read without adding a sarcastic inflection), “Dream big, princess.” While MOANA supports this advertorial platitude, it actually encourages all kids to dream bigger.  Musker stated, “She’s unlike any of the heroines we’ve done before in many ways; She’s sixteen – the daughter of a chief. She’s high-spirited. She’s very nimble, athletic.” One such profound sequence is when Moana uncovers the Cave of Wavefarers and imagines herself setting sail on one of the catamaran-like skiffs, guiding a crew of other voyagers. Clements augmented, “The movie deals a lot with issues of identity; people who’ve lost their identity. A demi-god who’s lost his identity. A girl searching for her identity. For Moana, it’s a basic hero’s journey – a coming-of-age story where she’s the hero of this movie. She discovers who she is and to not let others define her – she defines herself.”

MOANA opens on November 23.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.