Moana’s Directors: From Disney’s Past to the Future

The directors of the new Disney animated feature Moana are a link to the studio’s illustrious past.

When Den of Geek visited Disney’s Tujunga Campus in Burbank, California this past summer for an early look at Moana, the company’s new animated feature film, one of the most interesting aspects of the movie was the two men directing it: Ron Clements and John Musker, who have been involved with the studio for approximately 43 years (since the early ‘70s) in positions such as character animator and story artist. Clements, in fact, served a two-year apprenticeship under Frank Thomas, one of the original core group of Disney animators known as the Nine Old Men.

Clements made his feature debut as a character animator in 1977 with The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, and later became supervising animator on 1981’s The Fox and the Hound. It was there that he met character animator Musker, and the two began a creative partnership that would yield little fruit at first. Early projects like The Black Cauldron and Basil of Baker Street were either changed or abandoned, but the two men did make their directorial debut — as part of a four-person team — on 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective.

While working on that movie, Clements found a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and pitched it as a possible animated feature to then-Disney CEO and chairman Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Although the pitch was initially turned down, Katzenberg came back to Clements and asked him to expand it. Clements brought Musker on board to help him with that task, and the two eventually wrote and directed The Little Mermaid.

Released in 1989, the film was a monster hit and became generally regarded as the movie that ushered in a new era for the company’s legendary work in the animation field. With songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, beautiful hand-drawn animation and a colorful story (it was initially considered for a Disney feature back in the 1930s), The Little Mermaid not only revived Disney’s animation brand but put Musker and Clements on the map.

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Next up for the pair was 1992’s Aladdin, an all-out blockbuster that became the first animated film to gross more than $200 million domestically, followed by Hercules in 1997, Treasure Planet in 2002 and, after spending some time away from Disney, The Princess and the Frog in 2009. Just on the basis of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Musker and Clements’ legacy at Disney was more than secure, but in 2011 they pitched a movie based around Polynesian legends and folk history, and that film was Moana.

Moana tells the story of a 16-year-old girl (voiced by 15-year-old newcomer Auli’I Cravalho) from the island of Motan’nui who heads out on a daring and dangerous quest by boat to find a fabled island and reinvigorate her people’s desire to explore, long after the one-time pioneering explorers of Oceania abruptly stopped their journeying one day. Along the way she teams up with the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).

Speaking at Disney Animation about the inspiration for the tale, Clements said, “About 3,000 years ago, all voyaging (in Polynesia) stopped for 1,000 years. Everyone just stayed put and didn’t migrate. Then about 2,000 years ago, they started up again and proceeded to populate the eastern Pacific, including Tahiti and Hawaii and New Zealand. Because it was an oral culture, nothing was written down and no one actually knows why the voyaging stopped or how it started again. It’s a mystery.”

The directors made three extensive research trips to the Pacific, in October 2011, March 2014 and November 2014. They visited the islands of Fiji, Tahiti, Samoa, Tetiaroa, Mo’orea and Manono — along with additional visits to New Zealand — to immerse themselves in the culture, history, geography and folklore of the area. Both said that the trips changed them as people while also changing the story in fundamental ways.

Clements continued about the history of migration in the region, “There are a lot of theories, and we came up with a theory that is actually the basis of our movie. There’s a fantasy aspect to it, but the idea was what if it was one young girl who was responsible for things starting up again?”

Musker said that Moana is very much her own person and a break from the kinds of female characters he and Clements have created before:  “She’s 16, she’s the daughter of a chief, she’s fearless, she’s high-spirited, she’s very smart, she’s nimble, she’s athletic — may I use the word ‘badass’? She’s unlike any of the heroines we’ve done before in many ways.”

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The biggest difference between Moana and Musker and Clements’ previous films is that this is their first animated movie done in almost all CG and their first in 3D. Everything previous to this has been hand-drawn. In a nod to their history, however, the directors mandated that the tattoos on Maui’s body be hand-drawn and animated in 2D.

It’s these little homages to the past, coupled with the state-of-the-art technology used in the present to make Moana as immersive and beautiful to look at as it can possibly be, that may lead the film to one day be spoken of in the same breath as other modern Disney hits like Frozen and Zootopia, as well as movies like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.