Disney Animation chief John Lasseter’s truth-in-research mandate has never been more evident than on the Oscar-nominated “Moana” (released this week on Blu-ray/DVD). The filmmakers’ sojourns to the South Pacific greatly influenced their Polynesian world and its characters, which is documented in the 30-minute “Voice of the Islands” bonus feature.
Indeed, the three weeks traveling between Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, and New Zealand was an ethnographic revelation in culture, art, beauty, and the spiritual connection with the land and ocean.
In fact, when the Disney team embarked on their research trips, Maui (the arrogant demigod voiced by Dwayne Johnson) was the protagonist. However, the focus immediately changed to Moana (voiced by Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), the self-reliant, anti-princess, who resurrects her navigational heritage to save her world.
“The culture personifies nature and nature feels really alive once you are there,” director Ron Clements told IndieWire.
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“The topography is a little more of a subtle caricature than on some films,” added Clements. “Actually, side by side we compared the look of the movie with reality and we pushed the color and shapes with lighting. A good caricature looks more like a person than the person.”
The Disney team formed an Oceanic Story Trust of Polynesian consultants, who helped to define the personification of nature (including the ocean as a character to guide Moana), and the ritualistic importance of Samoan tattoos (which led to the hand-drawn creation of Mini-Maui). Except for the scene-stealing Hei Hei rooster, every character was drawn from the Polynesian culture.
The consultants even came back to Disney and continued providing cultural corrections: a Polynesian would never destroy a coconut when Moana displays anger, and a bald Maui was turned into a long-haired mythic figure.
“There was this feeling that something special was happening in how much that immersion fed this fantasy story with its look and its beauty and its sound,” producer Osnat Shurer told IndieWire.
Inevitably, though, Shurer enjoyed breaking down masculine and feminine barriers.
“I think it’s one of the things that’s there when you personify nature: the female and male and the earth and the sky,” Shurer added. “But also in our character of Moana. To me, she’s a whole person. There are feminine qualities of compassion and empathy, and the power and strength that we associate with masculine. It takes both of those to save her world.”