This Thanksgiving, Walt Disney Animation Studios is releasing Moana, the story of a Polynesian teen taking an epic hero's journey to explore the ocean and find a legendary island that her ancestors have sought for centuries. John Musker and Ron Clements (the directing duo responsible for classics like The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin and Hercules) are creating their first CGI film, and it's one that audiences expect a lot from - not only because the studio has been producing hit after hit, possibly even fostering in a new golden era for Disney, but because it offers a more diverse story and cast of characters than the company typically creates. The story is centered around Disney's first Pacific Islander princess, after the company just produced four films about white, Western princesses in a row. With so much history and mythology in Polynesian culture, the bar is set high for Moana.
Clements and Musker took two trips to the South Seas to learn about Polynesian culture firsthand. After meeting many people and discovering what it is like to live surrounded by ocean, they decided to create a story that includes details about how the sea and land are the same, the concept of dead reckoning navigation and a script drafted by a native New Zealander Taika Waititi. With that in mind, here are 15 Things We Want To See In Disney's Moana.
We have seen Disney's CGI continually improve over the years, so expectations for this are especially high. The subject matter in particular provides a wide canvass for the studio to portray a colorful array of ocean life, the vibrant flora and fauna of the South Pacific region, and larger-than-life gods. As CGI continues to develop into a more accessible tool with increasingly realistic functions that pass the boundaries of hand-drawn animation, movie makers are also able to build upon their skill sets and launch films with new effects at lower budgets. The recently released trailer of Moana revealed several sequences that are visually compelling, further supporting the idea that it will be a gorgeous movie to see. Perhaps viewers will even get to glimpse Paliuli, the legendary Hawaiian paradise.
Having received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature for films like Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog, a nomination for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Motion Picture for The Great Mouse Detective and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Animation for both Aladdin and Hercules, Clements and Musker have set their own bar high for this expectation.
Disney has been surpassing Pixar in terms of film development as of late. Between Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia, the company is on a roll with hit films that have blown pictures like Cars 2 out of the water. Frozen is the highest-grossing animated feature in history, making over $1.2 billion around the world and is still raking in sales from princess dresses, action figures and even themed cutlery three years later. Big Hero Six opened with $56.2 million dollars its first weekend, coming in third only behind Frozen and Zootopia in terms of Disney's opening weekend sales. This year's hit film Zootopia beat both films during its opening weekend, making $75 million in three days.
It is unlikely that Disney would follow this rolling wave of success with a flat film. Moana should ride this crest of Disney success and be just as big, if not bigger, than the last three studio films.
Moana will largely take place in the ocean, providing the film with not only the widest scope of set but also the widest range of obstacles to face. Viewers are looking forward to some sort of epic battle in the film, whether it is with some kind of sea monster, another god or even a large ocean creature from 2,000 years ago. Given that Moana's sidekick for the adventure is a demi-god with moving tattoos who can transform into a bird at will, it is safe to assume that she may need some magic, power or even trickery to defeat something along the way. She also has two additional sidekicks, a pig named Pua and a chicken called Hei Hei, along for the ride. From Pocahontas to Tangled, Disney has demonstrated what role a good sidekick can play during a battle.
The question is, what will Moana be up against? From deep sea creatures to vengeful demi-gods to a lava witch with ashen claws, the possibilities of a worthy foe are endless.
The directing duo of Musker and Clements has a strong track record in terms of bringing magic and moving stories to the big screen. Even so, the pair has received strong criticism over the years for their lack of diversity in films. Some films are even loathed by viewers for their racism. Aladdin, one of the pair's most lauded films, was criticized for making the protagonists "whiter" in terms of both skin tone and the film's voice cast. Many media critics have expressed concern over whether or not they will make the same kind of mistake in Moana.
Musker and Clements were closer to the mark when they created The Princess and the Frog, and perhaps through their research of the South Pacific and the involvement of Taika Waititi in the project, they will be able to create a film that truly portrays the culture they hope to bring to life with accuracy and respect.
Not only should Moana include the representation of Polynesian voices in its storytelling, but it also needs to have a supporting cast of literal Pacific Islander voices. Making all of the supporting cast fit in with the film is pretty important and many animated films have come under some harsh criticism for ignoring the importance of including accurate voice portrayals, especially for people of color. In addition to Aladdin being portrayed as white against an entire cast of more Arabic-looking characters, the film consisted of a mostly white voice cast as well.
In The Princess and the Frog, casting choices were vastly improved, with a few exceptions. Many are hoping that each of the voices in Moana will reflect the actual culture of the character speaking. The team has selected newcomer Auli’i Cravalho to play 14-year-old Moana, which is a step in the right direction.
In addition to an accurate representation of Polynesian people, viewers hope to also experience true Pacific Islander culture through Moana. The food, music, folklore, and symbols of the culture are important not only in making the film more believable and providing viewers with a richer experience, but also also in simply the culture it represents. Unlike many fantasy films in which worlds are crafted from imagination alone, Moana gives the directional team the opportunity to explore the world and show off the wonders of the environment with viewers. The best part of the film is that its setting actually exists and the audience is able to go and visit where Moana is from, which is not always the case in fantasy.
When a living place and people are represented in a movie, it is more important than ever to use both accuracy and ethics during that representation to avoid cultural appropriation or using the culture as something "exotic" to rally audiences to "ooh" and "ahh" around. The opportunities the team has to explore Polynesian folklore, culture and symbolism are limitless here. Viewers are looking forward to seeing statuary, flora and fauna, and, given that it is a Disney production, hearing Polynesian music.
Something that Studio Ghibli usually gets right and Walt Disney Animation Studios does not always grasp is the need to layer both heroes and villains. Disney has a tendency to make characters rather shallow, giving them a very limited set of traits to define them as people. In a Ghibli film, villains are not always bad and heroes are not always good. In fact, both types of characters are wont to exist in varying shades of gray as they develop throughout the movie, which is that makes a Ghibli film all the more satisfying to the viewer. Characters like Sen (Spirited Away) and Arietty (The Secret World of Arietty) exhibit a wide variety of traits the help draw the audience in and relate to the characters.
Disney has been getting closer to the mark, especially when depicting the faults of their heroes. Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia all featured flawed heroes. A truly complex heroine would make Moana stand out from other Disney heroines. Viewers want to connect with Moana and if she has faults, a nuanced personality and some growth work that make her easier to relate to, all the better.
Moana has huge potential for sea creatures, strange gods, and other mythological beings. Although Moana's sidekicks may be a pig and a chicken, some of the coolest underwater creatures that live near Maui include the Hawaiian green sea turtle, sea stars, a variety of eels, butterfly fish, different species of octopus and many other animals. In terms of mythological creatures, the writers have a long history of tales to choose from. Viewers may see ghosts, like night marchers or ghosts of ancient warriors. Island spirits, like the Green Lady, could appear in the film. Magical fish like Abaia or supernatural birds like the Adarno of the Philippines may be present in the movie.
There are the cosmic serpent Antaboga, the Tahitian sea-demon Ahifatumoana, the benign spirits of the bariaua in Malaysia and hundreds of other legends to choose from. Of course, chickens and pigs also have their place in Polynesian mythology, from the bird-man to the half-pig demigod, Kamapua‘a. There is also the lizard goddess Kalamainuʻu and the shark god Kāmohoaliʻi in the Hawaiian pantheon.
Musker and Clements can easily include the Hawaiian words that most people know, like "aloha" and "mahalo" into the film, but the duo could instead opt to introduce the audience to more vocabulary terms for two reasons. The first is the obvious enrichment of the movie. When Walt Disney Animation Studios launched the film Lilo and Stitch, the Hawaiian songs, phrases and other language inclusions really added to the feel of the film. By including some Malay, Maori or other relevant languages, the creators have the opportunity to flesh out the movie Moana for the audience.
The second reason is to encourage the education of the audience. Remember when one of the clan leader's sons, Young MacGuffin, spoke using the Doric dialect in the movie Brave and everyone took to the internet to find out just what he was saying? Including actual bits of the native language will encourage many viewers to research Polynesia after seeing the film.
The creator of Hamilton, Lin-Manual Miranda, is in charge of writing Moana's soundtrack, so viewers are expecting great things from the music department. His musical has been a monster hit, making hundreds of dollars per ticket, grossing over $46 million in its first year and resulting in sold out show after show. Miranda's skills have earned him several awards, including the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama Critics Circle Awards. Opetaia Foaʻi and Mark Mancina are also working on the film's music. Opetaia Foaʻi is an award-winning member of the Oceanic musical group Te Vaca and Mark Mancina is a Grammy-winning composer known for his work on Disney films The Lion King, Tarzan and Brother Bear.
One of Miranda's cast mates in Hamilton, Phillipa Soo, is also providing vocal talents in the movie for a villager of Motunui. With this much star power, the film's soundtrack is bound to be spectacular.
The demigod Maui is not only being voiced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, but the character also looks quite a bit like him. The demigod was in the middle of a controversy recently when some Pacific Islanders voiced opinions about his portrayal being insensitive to their culture. Some viewers, including politicians and media experts, find the character morbidly obese as well as an offensive caricature of Polynesian people, some even calling him a "half-pig, half-hippo." Others are saying that the character's build merely implies strength and godliness. Even if he does not appear to be offensive to the general public, it is important to consider the words of the Polynesian people who find his image to be hurtful.
The appearance of the demigod Maui may have little bearing on the character's personality, which will likely include much of The Rock's own trademark silliness and charm. Johnson has been performing in many children's films lately and most of his performances have been solid, if a bit on the cheesy side. We can expect a larger-than-life persona, complete with boisterous laughter and sly trickery, with Johnson behind the character.
After viewing the the trailer (and seeing Maui's tattoos dancing on his skin), most people would agree that this is a film filled with magic and wonder and that audiences should be on the lookout for supernatural forces, glittery spell work or some other kind of allurement. Some spectacular magic scenes should be in store for the audience. Walt Disney Animation Studios wield their magic with a deft hand, as has been evident in modern films like Frozen and The Princess and the Frog just as well as it was in classic Disney stories.
Keeping the icy scenes of Queen Elsa's creation in the former film and the light and darkness present in Mama Odie and Dr. Facilier's doings in the latter, viewers should expect some otherworldly magic woven into the story line. Knowing Disney, it will also occur during the most moving songs of the film. Given the subject matter, it is also likely that the magical scenes will take place under the ocean.
Disney's last teen, Merida, was voiced by actress Kelly Macdonald. She did an excellent job in the role of portraying the fiery princess in Brave, but by bringing in newcomer Auli’i Cravalho from Hawaii to voice Moana, the makers of the film will be able to provide the character with a more realistic teen's voice and personality. No matter the talents an actor possesses, there is a certain freshness that children and teens bring to the screen. They have yet to experience much of life and can express the giddy excitement of their age like no other.
The last person that the producers heard for the role after thousands of other young woman applied for the position, Auli’i Cravalho, age 14, is a native of Hawaii. Her bubbly youth is tangible on her Twitter profile, where she poses with her teddy bear, proclaims, "Mahalo all. I am Moana!" and profusely utilizes joyful emojis.
Although this is Auli’i Cravalho's first film role, she grew up wanting to be a Disney princess as a child. Her dreams of becoming a singer or an actress are coming true in the process of her becoming Moana for the movie. Cravalho lives in Mililani on the island of Oahu and although she felt unworthy of the role of Moana, the high school sophomore was discovered by Oahu casting agent while singing at a charity event. The agent arranged her trip to Los Angeles and the rest is history. Being a part of Moana will likely be the beginning of stardom for the young newcomer.
Cravalho attends Hawaiian schools known as Kamehameha Schools that focus on local culture and heritage as a key component of their curriculum. An honor student, she is also active in her school Glee Club. She says that when she voices Moana, she is simply being herself, whether she is jumping up and down in excitement or singing. She told interviewers that she does not have to fake anything, but if she had to choose one princess she most relates to, it is Ariel from The Little Mermaid.
Descriptions of the movie indicate that the theme will be a hero's journey, so audiences should expect a coming of age story that really delivers on both the feels and meaning. Moana's journey may include honoring her ancestors, as we've seen in Mulan, exploring an entirely new world to her, which brings The Little Mermaid to mind, and any issues that come with being a teen, which could be reminiscent of Brave. Ultimately it will be a completely new experience filled with magic, trickery, music and culture, the kind of masterpiece we expect from Clements and Musker.
Perhaps with the arsenal of new CGI tools at their hands and the fresh knowledge of Polynesian culture in their heads, they will craft something like nothing the world has ever seen, launching a bright new actress's career and a diverse and capable new Disney hero for children to enjoy along the way.