This article contains a small Moana spoiler.
Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker are responsible for some of the greatest Disney films of all time, and certainly of the company’s 1990s resurgence with The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992). While in 2016, the Disney 3D computer animation renaissance has been well underway after hits like Frozen and Zootopia, their latest film Moana is still a trailblazer.
Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) is a rebellious island girl who ventures away from her paradise home to restore a mystical artifact to its rightful place. Along the way she meets demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for an adventure across the sea. Clements and Musker were of course well aware of their “Under the Sea” legacy, so they made plenty of references that their fans will appreciate, which came up during our delightful conversation with Clements and Musker at the Moana press junket.
Are you drawn to leaving home stories?
Musker: We both left home. He’s from Iowa, and I’m from Chicago.
Clements: We’re both from the Midwest. Maybe so. I’ve never really thought about that, but yeah, it’s true.
Musker: We’ve been going to The Wizard of Oz, which we both saw as kids. It was on TV every year. That really had an impact on me, the whole idea of leaving home, or in that case trying to return home. Yeah, there’s something about it. It’s growing up basically.
Clements: There’s an archetypal kind of aspect. Joseph Campbell writes about that. Particularly at a certain age when you’re at that age when you’re trying to figure out just who you are, that there is that breaking away to discover who you are.
There’s that aspect and there’s the line, “If you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” Was it fun to comment on the mythology that you’ve been such an integral part of creating at Disney?
Musker: It was fun. Jared Bush wrote the line and we supported the line.
Clements: We liked that line.
Musker: We liked putting a spin on some of the tropes that had come out of our own films. We like acknowledging the princess elephant in the room.
Clements: But just the point that Moana is a little different than the Disney heroines certainly that we’ve done in the past and other Disney heroines, that she is really the hero of the story in a way that she goes on a hero’s journey. Her mission is to save her world, to save her people. If she fails, the consequences are really dire and yet she’s up to the task.
It was always really from where the character of Moana came, this girl that is drawn to the sea. We never had a romance for Moana. It was always thought of as more of a True Grit type story. It was not a love story. [It’s] an adventure story.
And Moana and Maui are at odds with each other the whole movie.
Musker: Yeah, they’re kind of a mismatched sort of an odd couple. It’s kind of a road movie in a way with the two of them. It was fun getting that dynamic working.
Clements: It was hard.
Musker: It was hard because in early versions, Maui was so much a curmudgeon, he was so far the other way that then that wasn’t quite working. Certainly when we got Dwayne and he recorded, he’s got such charm and charisma, he could make those things work. We rewrote it also too to leaven it a little bit.
Clements: He’s a flawed character certainly, but Dwayne can take a flawed character like that who’s a little narcissistic and also has these issues that are deep down and make him really likable.
Musker: And Auli’i, our voice of Moana, she’s an unknown. We cast her when she’ s 14 but she’s totally fearless, even though she had no formal training. She could go into these recording sessions and tease us, we could tease her back. She could improvise and match up to the Rock basically, which was great. So those scenes I think are really smart because she’s got such wit and personality.
Clements: They’re a good match for each other I think.
There’s one more reference to your previous movies if audiences stay for the Easter egg at the end. Was the Sebastian reference scripted or improv’d by Jemaine [Clement]?
Musker: Jared wrote a bunch of stuff, and I think the Sebastian part actually was scripted.
Clements: Jemaine adlibbed a lot.
Musker: Parts of that line were adlibbed, but the basic essence of doing a shout out to Sebastian came from Jared Bush again. Jemaine is fun. He did a bunch of improvs.
Clements: The credits are fairly long but if you stay through, you get that little extra.
Musker: Surprise at the end, a little Easter egg.
Chris Williams and Don Hall get credit as co-directors. I know there are always co-directors on animated movies, but were they more integral than usual for Moana?
Musker: We’ve directed everything with each other. Don Hall and Chris Williams, who had done Big Hero 6 came on. We were at a point, about midway through, maybe 2/3.
Clements: A year and a half.
Musker: A year and a half ago, we were having big story problems.
Clements: And going into production.
Musker: And we were going to production at the same time. It was like oh my gosh, how are we going to solve these story problems? So Don and Chris had been doing some boarding, were really empowered to help reshape the story. When we were getting the movie animated, they started working more directly with the story people trying to rejigger some of where sequences came. They were really a huge help.
Clements: We had the crisis I would say, and a lot of the movies, I would say the truth is most of the Disney movies in this stage, and the Pixar movies, have these crises. It’s a little scary but it’s a commitment to really trying to get things to work the best they possibly can. It’s part of the process that everybody helps everybody else. Sometimes, they’ve had one director and then another director.
Musker: It’s not every movie.
Clements: No, but certainly the story type things are.
When we watch the DVDs, those are the most interesting ones with drastic changes behind the scenes.
Musker: The original version of this story was a little different. There was a rescue mission in the original story where her father had gone out to sea, and she was going to rescue him and all that. That kind of went away. That was one of the things that went away.
But you found a place for that in the father’s backstory.
Musker: Yeah, we did. We wanted to give him a reason why he was so dead set against [Moana leaving]. Sometimes that backstory was in there and sometimes it wasn’t, but we really felt it was crucial.
Clements: Sometimes it’s finding the right balance of things. There are elements that come and go. They’re in, they’re out.
Musker: The song “We Know the Way” used to come at the beginning of the movie. That was sort of the prologue of the movie to set up the whole voyaging thing. I think it was John Lasseter’s idea where he’s like, “I want to see this movie through the eyes of the protagonist.” He suggested we should move that later and discover that with her, so it puts you in her head. That’s his mantra through a lot of these movies is see as much of the movie as you can through the eyes of the protagonist.
So Don and Chris were more co-directors of story?
Musker: They were story, and then we worked with the animators to do all the acting.
Clements: We were working like 12-hour days and Saturdays. The way these films work, this is our first digital film, first computer film, and the process is a little different than a hand drawn film. There was more lead time, I would say, because there’s a long process as the story develops. While the story is being developed, you’re creating the assets. You’re building the characters, rigging the characters. The environments are created in three dimensions and it takes a long time. You’re not really seeing a lot except you’re seeing designs and you’re seeing three dimensional things.
But the production process where you actually make the movie can be compressed in a way that you couldn’t really do so much in a hand drawn film, so that a lot starts to happen in a very short period of time in animation. It gets very intense with a compressed schedule like that. We had 90 animators on the movie which is way more than we’ve ever worked with.
Musker: So it helped that Don and Chris were focused on this so we could spend hours with the animators really.
Did computer animation allow you to be more ambitious with the action, and to create the ocean as a character itself?
Musker: If you compare this ocean to the ocean we did in Little Mermaid, for its time that ocean wasn’t bad in Little Mermaid, but we were able to do so much more with this being in CG in terms of the reflections, the refractions, the way it works as an ocean, and even the idea of making it a character. That’s something that grew out of our trip to the South Pacific that they thought of the ocean as alive. Yeah, CG enabled us to do things that we just couldn’t have done in 2D like with the fabrics on the clothes and all that, and the hair. This is the best hair we’ve ever done.
Clements: Certainly with camera movement. We could be more ambitious with lighting.
Musker: That whole Kakamora sequence, which was sort of our homage to George Miller and Fury Road, we could really zip the camera around on the Z axis and not just on X and Y. We had a lot of tools we could play with in CG that we don’t have in 2D.
Moana zips into theaters on Wednesday, Nov. 23.