This week, Walt Disney Animation will introduce audiences to their newest heroine as Moana sails into theaters around the world for a thrilling new adventure inspired by Polynesian cultures. Featuring the voices of Dwayne Johnson and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, the film is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and boasts an incredible soundtrack from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina.
Last weekend, we were fortunate enough to attend a press conference in Santa Monica with the cast and creative team of Moana, and we wanted to share some of the information we learned during the lively and hilarious discussion.
In order to get a sense of the culture and music of Polynesian people, the songwriters were flown to the Pasifika Music Festival in Auckland, New Zealand, where Lin-Manuel Miranda surprised everyone with his dance moves.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: With my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand where everyone was already there, and you know the Pasifika Music Festival is islands and choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific, so we sort of immersed ourselves in this world. And then Opetaia, Mark and I jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums and started really trying to find the pulse of this thing in a way that honored the unique musical heritage and incredible rhythms that come out of this part of the world.
Opetaia Foa’i: But before that, we had this dance competition on the stage…
Lin-Manuel Miranda: There was a dance competition.
Opetai Foa’i: I’d never met him before. And you know, I had my suspicions about him, and he jumps onstage and dances [and] wins the competition.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Luckily Puerto Ricans can shake their hips, too.
As the leader of Oceanic music group Te Vaka, Opetaia Foa’i has garnered numerous award throughout his career. But in his younger days, he was discouraged by his family from pursuing a career in music.
Opetaia Foa’i: In my culture, music is like breathing air, and they can’t understand why somebody would make a career out of playing music. So I had to struggle throughout my whole career, my parents saying, “Get a job.” They wanted me to be a doctor, [or] a teacher. You know, I was born in a hut – a thatched-roof hut – so to find myself here in a big city with Disney like this, it’s just beyond my dreams. I’m just thrilled to be part of this amazing group of people. My mouth is still open. I’ll just sit here and look at these guys, I’m in awe.
In order to determine Dwayne Johnson’s vocal range while writing the song “You’re Welcome,” Lin-Manuel Miranda watched videos of The Rock’s wrestling days.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I got a lot of questions from reporters this week being like, how did you get the Rock to sing? That’s not what happened here. When Dwayne accepted the role he said, “So what are you giving me to sing?” and he was really excited for this.
I went to YouTube where the answers always lie and you know, I’m a big fan of his wrestling days, and there was a time during [his] heel turn era where he would pull out a guitar and taunt whatever town he was in… And so I got a really good sense of his vocal range from that 10-minute super cut, and then the rest of it was just writing lyrics that embody the spirit of Maui, who is this amazing demi-god, trickster god. And once I had the title, You’re Welcome, which only Dwayne can pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.
Dwayne Johnson: It was an opportunity to challenge myself. As Lin was saying, he did his research and by the time I got the song, it was in my comfortable range as well, and then also parts of the song which pushed me a little bit, which I appreciate because that’s what I needed. Honestly, I had such a great time – one of the best times I’ve ever had in my career was actually working on this project and certainly working on that song because also, we all love challenges, and this was a challenge in that the bar is set so incredibly high in a Disney film to sing.
Ron Clements: We though of Dwayne as the new Angela Lansbury.
Dwayne Johnson: Yes I am. Proudly.
Newcomer Auli’i Cravalho went through multiple auditions and beat hundreds of other competitors to be cast in the role of Moana. This is her first job as an actress.
Auli’i Cravalho: It’s just been an incredible journey for me. I’m 15 going on 16, I’m working with the best people in the entire world, making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life, and that is something so incredibly special for the rest of the world to see. But as someone who is hoping to continue in show business… I was wondering, how would I continue in this and still be Polynesian and that might be an interesting concept, and it was an interesting concept for me to even think up. But as I continue in this and as I potentially might leave my home, what does that make me?
Does that still keep me Polynesian? Am I still grounded and rooted in the way that I want to be? And I can honestly say yes, because being surrounded by my family and by the Hawaiian culture every day, it seems as though I would never lose it. But to have a film like this that will inspire me and to have a character that will inspire others as well, to become rooted in who they truly are, that’s something that inspires me and that I hope will inspire others as well.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is best known for creating the award-winning Broadway musical Hamilton, but he’s actually been working on the music for Moana since before the show opened.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I’ve been working on this film for two years and seven and a half months, and I can tell you that with confidence because my son turned two last week and I got this job the same day I found out I was going to be a father. I’ve been working on this since before Hamilton opened, concurrently with Hamilton as we went through previews and then through Hamilton since we opened.
How do you do all these things? I ask the same question when I see the Rock’s Instagrams at five o’clock in the morning. It actually became my oasis of calm. I prioritized writing this story. I would meet with our creative team every Tuesday and Thursday at 5pm my time and sometimes they’d see me in my 18th-century blouse because I had a curtain at seven.
But it forced me to say no to things, that I could say yes to Moana, and during previews it was a great break. If I was sick of the founders rapping I would go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana, so it actually was the opposing muscle group, it was the counterweight to the Hamilton phenomenon, and it was also sort of an island of peace when the Hamilton stuff started getting crazy in terms of crowds and in terms of attention. So I’m really grateful for Moana, because it kept me grounded and it kept me writing at a time when the world was really paying attention.
Due to his Polynesian heritage – expressed through the same sort of intricate tattoos that cover his animated counterpart – Dwayne Johnson was thrilled to be part of the film.
Dwayne Johnson: [Auli’i] mentioned a term, its called “Aloha Spirit,” and it’s something that is very special, it’s very meaningful to us and our Polynesian culture. Those of you who have had the opportunity to visit Hawaii or any of the Polynesian islands, it’s a very special thing, it’s an intangible, that when you get off the plane and you have your feet on the ground there, energetically it takes you to a different place. That’s Aloha Spirit. And the opportunity that we had, just as Polynesians to be part of a story and to bring to life a story of our Polynesian culture in this capacity with our great partners at Disney, musically with these masters, was just a really, really special opportunity for us. So I feel like the Polynesian people are going to be incredibly proud of the movie.
I think what’s going to touch upon all of us – regardless of where we’re at in the world, where we’re from, cultures, class, religion – is the voice. There’s so much noise that’s happening in our world, but the little voice that you’ve always got to listen to, your gut, your intuition:, you can do things, you can go beyond boundaries, and you have to trust that gut and instinct. So those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away, and the rest of the world will take away.
Moana opens in theaters everywhere on November 23.