Ron Clements & John Musker interview: Moana, Disney, animation

Legendary Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker on Moana, Hercules, Disney and Dwayne Johnson.

Ron Clements and John Musker are movie stars to me. Since I first saw Basil The Great Mouse Detective in my early years, I’ve been a huge fan of their movies. But then their collective CV as directors covers the likes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Treasure Planet and The Princess And The Frog as well. Even in the movies of theirs I warm to less, there’s something I latch on to.

It’s been seven years since the lovely The Princess And The Frog, and the pair finally have a new movie. It’s called Moana, and I got to pretend to be professional, and chat to them about it.

I just about held it together for the full interview too. You’re proud of me, right?

What a human film Moana is. Can you talk us through what your way into the story was?

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Ron C: As far as the setting of the movie, that was really John’s idea to do a movie set in the world of the Pacific Islands.

John M: Reading the mythology, and learning about it. I’d never been to that part of the Pacific. I’d been to Hawaii, but in terms of Tahiti, Fiji, I just knew it from books and paintings, and things like that. But it seemed very picturesque. The sculptures there seemed very primal and powerful.

So that led me to read mythology. I’d never read Polynesian mythology, the character of Maui [voiced by Dwayne Johnson in the film] just shouted out at me because it was so animation-friendly. A shape-shifter, a trickster, he had a magical hook like Thor’s hammer. He has tattoos that told the story. All of that seems bigger than life, and such ripe for animation. I showed those stories to Ron, and we put our heads together, and pitched a simple story to John Lasseter. That was five years ago.

John was intrigued by it, and the character of Maui. But then he said you’ve got to dig deeper into the research. And he forced us to go to the Pacific Islands! Where we had to endure time in Tahiti and Fiji and Somoa [laughs]. It was really wonderful, and transformative, all the lessons we learned when we got there. We took a deeper dive into the culture.

RC: We really met some incredible people on that trip. Linguists, anthropologists, fishermen, navigators, chiefs, villagers. We learned about the history of navigation, and how important it was. These were the greatest navigators the world has ever known. They had a deep connection to the ocean, and talked about it as if it was alive and had feelings. And a connection to their ancestors. When we got back from that trip, we jettisoned our original story – except Maui – but Moana came in after our first trip. The story of this teenage girl, and her quest.

I got to speak to you just after you’d made The Princess And The Frog, and it was you, John, who said something then where I think cinema is catching up with you.

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You said that you saw Disney princesses not as that, but as a band of superheroes. Do you have similar feelings with Moana, and the character you wanted to bring to the screen?

JM: We did think of Moana as a different kind of princess. We jokingly characterised her as a ‘badass princess’! We thought of her as an action adventure hero, and the story was always really framed as a coming of age story. It was really a hero’s journey, where the fate of the world was in her hands.

It was never really gender-dependent. There was no romance either. When we built Moana physically, we also wanted to push her in a different direction. She needed to dive off cliffs, fight pirates, steer a boat on the open sea. We really thought she needed a sturdier frame to make her more believable, and make her distinct from the other princesses, that other band of superheroes. I think we were happy, and the voice too, one of the characteristics of Auli’i Cravalho [Moana] was her fearlessness. She was fun to work with, was willing to improvise. She didn’t really have any formal training, she just dove in and held her own with the other actors. She was really inspiring. Her tenacity and her empathy was reflected in Moana.

RC: She’s probably even more of a superhero in the sense that she’s the hero of this movie, she goes on a hero’s journey, and she has kind of a superpower in that she and the ocean are connected. They’re buddies, and that helps.

I did want to talk to you about casting. John, you did an extraordinary series of interviews with the Howard Ashman Part Of His World website…

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JM: I did.

I got really deep into how the two of you approached the casting of Hercules. Of how the role of Hades was originally for Jack Nicholson, and Charlton Heston struggling with saying ‘you go, girl’. All these fascinating people who came through your casting process, not all of whom made it to the finished film. How early in your thinking, then, does someone like Dwayne Johnson come into a film like this? And how does the casting in turn affect how you mould the story? You’ve talked about how the environment and your research does, but what happens when you put a fresh human being in a recording booth?

JM: We thought of the character of Maui before we thought of Dwayne Johnson. But Dwayne entered the picture very early on. Even on our first research trip, one of our contacts, when we told her we were going to do the story of Maui, she suggested Dwayne. And she herself was half-Samoan. We knew of Dwayne’s roots, and that he’s connected to the islands. Also, Maui is a demi-god, and Dwayne certainly seemed like a demi-god! We brought him in.

We never auditioned anyone else for the part. We showed him storyboards, played him some of the music, and how we paid homage to his culture. And then Jared Bush, the final writer on the movie, certainly got aspects of Dwayne. In earlier versions, Maui seemed more negatively, curmudgeonly, unlikeable, whatever it might have been. Once Dwayne got involved and we started recording him, and when Jared started writing towards him, all that stuff became more likeable. There’s a charismatic part of Dwayne where he can say almost anything and get away with it. Lin [-Manuel Miranda]’s song, You’re Welcome, where we owe Maui apparently for everything we have! Lin thought a song like that might be difficult to pull off for someone other than Dwayne. His instant likeability, his man of the people persona, he redeems all that and makes it ingratiating.

RC: Also, Dwayne was really excited about singing a song! He was very eager, and Lin wrote that song specifically. A theme song for Dwayne.

It’s got enough knowingness to it hasn’t it, where he can get away with it? You can imagine someone playing it with more unlikeable arrogance, and the song would fall apart.

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RC: Right. Dwayne has a slyness to him.

That’s a much better way of putting it. That’s why you two are billionaires, and I’m not.

[They both laugh, but neither denies it. It’s the internet, so we figure we can take that as fact]

Was there a Charlton Heston moment here? That you brought someone in on Moana who couldn’t quite wrap their head around it? Because casting must be incredibly difficult.

RC: It is difficult. This movie is unique I think. It doesn’t have as many voice actors than a lot of our movies. A lot of the characters don’t speak in this one. But most of the voice actors are all from the region. Pretty much all the actors I think felt connected in the sense that this was their world, and they were very invested in that.

JM: I don’t think we had an incident like the Charlton Heston thing, or the Nell Carter thing we had on Hercules. When somebody who came in and was at odds with the material, and we had to work out how to bring them around. Everyone was pretty much on-board.

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One of the things I really loved is that you got Eric Goldberg in to do 2D animation on Moana. When I spoke to you before, you put me on to the How To Set Up A Home Theater animated short that he oversaw. How important is someone like Eric to your films, and how important with this project was it to vary the animation approaches you took?

JM: We love hand drawn, and with the basic natures of tattoos and their graphic design, it felt natural for hand-drawn animation. We love Eric Goldberg, we’ve worked with him since he did the Genie in Aladdin. He’s the master of particularly cartoony, entertaining and musical animation. Putting something across in pantomime. From the get go, we wanted to incorporate hand drawn animation, and Eric is the master. He really loved working on the movie. A lot of the CG animators are in their 20s and early 30s, and they watched Aladdin as kids. And here they were, working side by side with the man who brought the Genie to life. That was very special for them.

Do you get the animators in awe of you too, though? A lot of people who must have worked on this film would have watched The Little Mermaid and said ‘I want to do that’?

RC: It’s true. And certainly for a lot of people who saw those films and then moved into working in animation, they were inspired just as we were by the Disney films when we were kids. Things come full circle. That was very cool, I think.

JM: I was really amused. I saw some Tweets. There was one of the animators who we gave some scenes to. He was very soft spoken and very close. He was very understated. Then I saw a Tweet from him a day or two later where he said ‘I am working on a scene on a Ron and John movie, and my inner 8-year old is peeing!’. It was so funny, as I wouldn’t have picked up on that when we issued the scene to him! But there was more than one person who was like that. We liked that, it was fun. When we were in our 20s, Frank and Ollie were in their 60s, it was the cycle coming around again. We got to help pass the torch to men and women who grew up on our films.

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RC: There were a few old timers, but the bulk of the staff were young, very talented and eager.

I won’t save it for a Tweet. I’m peeing now.


The parent in me as well, I don’t know if you get the impact of that, one of the things in having the 2D animated tattoos in the film is it gives my kids something to draw. They’re reachable.

JM: That’s cool. I think that’s true, and I hadn’t thought about that. When you look at the complexities of CG images, they’re so rich on the screen. But if you want to draw the characters from the movie, I do think it’s tougher to do. Hand drawn characters give you an entry into that.

RC: I hadn’t thought about that. When I was a kid, I watched Pinocchio, I would go home and draw. It was the thing you did. And it is a little trickier.

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I showed them Cartoon Saloon’s Song Of The Sea, for instance. Have you seen that?

Both: YES! [we don’t usually use block caps, but it’s clear the pair are huge Cartoon Saloon fans]

JM: I love Tomm Moore movies. They’re very reachable. The graphic shapes are very strong, and I’d think kids can latch onto those.

When I tell people I’m talking to you, people seem to want to pigeonhole you as the hand drawn people. Yet you’ve always been progressive. Basil The Great Mouse Detective, you were the first to incorporate computer work into a key sequence of a Disney animated film. Treasure Planet feels like a film ten years too early, that the world wasn’t ready for it. But now, especially given how blockbuster cinema has evolved, how much control do you have over the form, and the animation style you choose to employ?

RC: That’s a good question. With The Princess And The Frog, we definitely wanted that to be a retro film, and emulate earlier Disney. That was a choice. For Moana, it was a deliberate choice to have an anthropomorphic ocean, and this world, and the textures, and the lighting. We felt that the CG was appropriate for this story. We feel for the right kind of story, different techniques are still viable. It’ll be a question I think for the future.

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JM: I think if the story supports a particular kind of animation, I’d hope that the studio supports it.

If you can not leave it seven years before the pair of you make another film, I’d be very much obliged.


JM: We had a few years where we were exploring other things…

Enough of that. You’ve explored them now.


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JM: We’ll get a move on!

RC: We’ll take your words to heart!

Ron and John, thank you very much!

Moana is in UK cinemas from December 2nd.