Back to IndieWire

‘Moana’: How Disney Animation Vets Created a Badass Polynesian Princess

In an exclusive interview, two veteran Disney directors continue their animation legacy with a new spin—their first CG feature.




Disney began the year by capturing the diversity and inclusion zeitgeist with the billion dollar “Zootopia,” and concludes the year by embracing new cultural heritage with the Polynesian-themed “Moana” (November 23).

For long-time Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”), it was an opportunity to explore CG for the first time while pushing the princess legacy in a new direction: following “Tangled” and “Frozen” with a film with contemporary appeal.

The free-spirited, teenage Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) possesses strong navigational skills and is determined to sail out on a dangerous mission to save her island and eradicate its isolation. She’s also a capable warrior, taking on a ship full of tiny coconut pirates called Kakamora.

And although she’s joined by the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson)— a reluctant sidekick at first — their relationship remains strictly platonic.

Of course, “Moana” also advances Disney animation as a stronger interplay between 2D and CG. Water, fire and hair, in particular, have been upped more graphically by the tech team. Moana’s hair flows more naturally, as it did in 2D, and she has a special rapport with the ocean, which beckons her like a gentle wave of the hand.

The directors even encouraged the creative use of 2D by animating Maui’s tattoos (supervised by veteran Eric Goldberg), with a mini-Maui serving as his Jiminy Cricket-like conscience.



Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“It comes with the territory,” said Musker. “We have Randy Haycock [‘The Lion King’, ‘Aladdin’] who does draw-overs of CG and to push things in terms of posing and can bring 2D ideas of how animation can work.  Dabbler [the painting app from NVIDIA] helps loosen it up by deforming CG models and moving it more into the 2D world. It’s more graphic and sculptural, a better fusing of the techniques.”

This artistic fusion came together organically after visiting the islands. The directors asked to see the works of indigenous painters and graphic artists for inspiration. But they were told that it’s a sculptural place.

“We looked around the island of Mo’orea and studied the sculpted rocks that worked both graphically and dimensionally,” Musker said. “Also, people’s faces and bodies were carved, so the idea of doing it in CG this way became clear. Jim Henn, who understands the transitional drawing between 2D and CG, worked this out.”

“Some people might think the movie’s more photoreal than some of the others, and it’s really not — it’s a caricature,” said Clements. “Even the water is trying to create an impression but make you experience what is real. A good caricature looks more like the person than the person themselves.”

“While we were there we saw this water that was jewel-like,” Musker said. “It was transparent but had character when crashing the beach. Ian Gooding, the production designer, had to re-invent the true thing. It’s like the old Picasso line: ‘You have to lie in order to tell the truth.’ It’s heightened color and texture for the emotional experience.”

Moana village costume designs by Neysa Bové.

Moana village costume designs by Neysa Bové.

It’s also very tactile, from the Pandanus woven sails to the grass skirts to the shells to the sand to the banana leaves.

Beyond that, the animators re-sculpted the characters to make more appealing shapes — and appeal remains critical at Disney for eye candy and emotional connection.

But finding Moana’s journey was naturally the hardest part. “What is the balance between her and Maui? How do we keep from having Maui take over the story? Trying to find the balance between how much she’s devoted to the community and how much she’s self-driven took two years of pushing and pulling,” Musker said.

The most fortuitous part was finding 14-year-old Cravalho from Hawaii to voice Moana after auditioning hundreds of more experienced actresses. She was the same age and embodied the character’s spirit.

“The irony is we designed her before we cast her voice so the fact that she looks like the character was totally kismet,” Musker said.

Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Awards and tagged , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox