The journey of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Oscar-nominated “How Far I’ll Go” song parallels the eponymous teenager’s arc in Disney’s “Moana.” That is, until the filmmakers of the animated contender figured out Moana’s quest, they struggled with her “I Want” song.
Naturally, Miranda was inspired by the Disney films of composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (including the two directed by “Moana’s” John Musker and Ron Clements: “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”). “Lin very much wanted to write an ‘I Want’ song, but we had to figure out what Moana wanted,” Clements told IndieWire.
First, Moana [Auli’i Cravalho] sang about being misunderstood and wanting to leave her island, which echoed Ariel’s desire in “Part of Your World” from “The Little Mermaid.” But, as Moana developed a more complex inner struggle, her song evolved into a tug-of-war between her responsibility as island leader and ambition to become a navigator.
“Our story evolved quite a bit and even the way this song fits in the movie moved around a few times,” said Musker. “And it changed quite a bit, too, in some cases with a few lyric adjustments, but certainly even how it was staged and where it fit into her general arc. There was a while when we first met her as a 16-year-old where there was a daredevil version.”
Added Clements, “Moana’s desire became a moving target. Early on there was more of an island fever to her quest. The thing that became pushed was that she actually loved her island and was committed and wanted to help her people, and yet felt this pull to the ocean, and that’s where we ended up.”
What Musker liked about Lin’s song was the deft construction, starting with the contemplative opening, then the driving verse with marked tempo. “But then the chorus is very lyrical and expansive with a big landscape,” he said. “So the way it was staged it alternated between these two impulses of steady drive, one way or another, pulling her toward the sea or rushing back to the island.”
“And once we hit that crescendo, then you get all that lyrical abandon,” he added. “And there’s a modulation at the end of the song where it escalates and she gets even more caught up. Dave Derrick did a great job of boarding it and that’s where she launches the boat.”
The placement of the song was crucial, too, and it was determined that structurally it should land after a setback when Moana’s father rejects her proposal to fish beyond the reef.
“I think [Disney head] John Lasseter was involved in having the Village song that preceded it really celebrating the world of this island,” Musker continued. “This gave the audience a chance to fall in love with the culture as well as show the counterpoint of what Moana was trying to defend. And, ultimately, her father wanting her to embrace the life of a leader.”
Symbolism was important as well. The stones at the top of the mountain commemorating her ascension as island leader was an idea conceived by screenwriter Jared Bush (“Zootopia”), while the oar symbolized her desire to explore beyond the reef.
“Any time she’s talking about going to the ocean, she goes to the right, and any time she’s talking about returning to the land and her responsibility, that’s to the left,” Musker said. “And when she talks about putting her stone up on top of the mountain, we opened up the space in the song, and we put in a pause when she considers which way she’s gonna go.”
Added Clements, “Even though it was a five-year project, the bulk of the movie was done in the last eight months, and the song was still in the later part of that because the first act was so tough to crack. And there was a lot of delayed gratification on this movie because it was thrilling to see how many of these shots came together.”