Disney’s “Moana” (opening November 23rd) boasts several animation breakthroughs: It will be the first major movie ever translated into Tahitian; the teenage heroine (voiced by Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) has no love interest; and, it’s the first CG feature directed by Disney hand-drawn vets John Musker and Ron Clements (“The Princess and the Frog,” “Aladdin,” “The Little Mermaid”).
“Moana” also marks the feature producing debut of Osnat Shurer, who was in charge of the shorts program at Pixar (“Lifted,” “One Man Band,” “Boundin'”), and later jumped to Disney to head development before getting the promotion. However, Musker said her pre-Pixar experience was just as valuable; before she joined the animation house in 2002, she’d served as an independent documentary producer with shoots in India, Tibet, China, Japan, Israel, and Turkey.
“When we were looking for a producer for our film, my thought turned quickly to Osnat Shurer,” he said. “Osnat’s experience in making documentaries around the world was invaluable to us as we both visited the Pacific Islands to research the culture that inspired ‘Moana’, and developed ongoing relationships with people we met there, who became our Oceanic Trust.” (The Oceanic Story Trust was a committee designed to ensure that the “Moana” story accurately represented Polynesian culture.)
“‘Moana’ is very different for us,” Shurer said. “It’s set in Polynesia and it’s a different style of being a hero. It breaks new ground. What she wants is to save her world. We’ve seen that a lot with male protagonists, but we don’t see that much with female protagonists. If they save the world, it’s on the way to Mr. Right.”
Although Moana’s joined by the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson, as her initially reluctant sidekick), their relationship remains strictly platonic, as the free-spirited navigator sets sail 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 Kakakora.
“I also think that we’ve established a new way to work with the cultures that inspire our stories — to keep them involved as you go forward, and to give back,” Shurer said. “For example, we’re translating the movie into Tahitian. There has never been a movie in Tahaitian because they all speak French. We’re doing this because the language is dying and when the language of an oral culture dies, the culture goes with it. The company rallied and we’re doing it. And maybe this will open up other possibilities in the future.”
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Shurer and the directors auditioned hundreds of actresses, but were instantly struck by Cravalho’s warmth and poise. Then 14 years old, the performer also physically resembled Moana’s concept design and had a pleasant voice. “She did it, we teased her and she teased back, and it was an instant fit,” Shurer said.
The toughest challenge was defining Moana’s character. “What her journey is, finding the right relationship between Moana and Maui and the tone for that. And finding the throughline without over hitting it,” Shurer said. “But once we discovered that voice, we landed. We adored the design and the greatest moment for me was watching her become sentient on screen.”
With Maui, the challenge was balancing his arrogance with likability. Johnson not only possessed the right star quality, but also his Polynesian ancestry made him the perfect fit.
“I wanted to reach out to Dwayne from the time we were in development,” Shurer said. “But when he came into our first recording session, he’s just able to be super confident and yet charming and warm and lovable at the same time. And that helped us find the voice of the character, so then we started writing more towards it. And then when the design came together, it all clicked.”
Shurer also helped directors Musker and Clements get grounded in the CG process, much as she did when Brad Bird came to Pixar to make “The Incredibles.”
“We needed to keep Ron and John building the movie they see in their mind with tools they were less familiar with,” Shurer said. “They’ve seen the other movies, so they know that they’re going to get amazing animation and effects. But still – this is hard. There was new tech for hair and grass skirts and sails and rope.”
She also helped them find ways to utilize their traditional animation experience. “We also knew we wanted the tattoos on Maui to come alive but we hadn’t yet figured out mini-Maui’s point of view [as his conscience] and where we were going to find the humor in that. And as that grew and we wanted more and more of it, we got clearer and clearer how traditional animation ties into this movie.”
Musically, “Moana” offers another excursion for Disney, thanks to Shurer. In addition to the musical presence of the Pacific from Opetaia Foa‘i (founder of the award-winning band, Te Vaka), “Moana” debuts two original songs from “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda: “How Far I’ll Go,” performed by Cravalho in the movie and Alessia Cara over the end credits, and “You’re Welcome,” performed by Johnson.
“We knew he was talented, and when he said he’s got this thing going that’s a hip-hop musical about the Founding Fathers, we thought, ‘Yeah, great, two months and he’s done and I’ll have him.’ I don’t think so,” Shurer said.