Disney’s new animated feature, Moana, celebrates the Polynesian culture.
As the movie opens, Gramma Tala (voiced by Rachel House, Whale Rider), is telling her granddaughter Monana, (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho), the tale of Te Fiti, the mother island whose heart could create life itself.
But Te Fiti’s heart was stolen many years ago by Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Central Intelligence, HBO’s Ballers), the demigod of the wind and sea, which unleashed a terrible darkness. Its devastation is now threatening the life of the islanders throughout the region.
Against her father’s will, Moana sets out to find Maui and restore Te Fiti’s heart.
The movie was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), with music and songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Miranda starred in and wrote the book, music and lyrics to Broadway’s Tony winning phenomenon Hamilton, about Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. On Moana, he worked alongside of Opetaia Foa’I (founder and lead singer of Te Vaka) and Mark Mancina (Speed, The Lion King) to create the music and songs for the movie.
Dwayne Johnson, Auli’i Cravalho and Lin-Manuel Miranda attended the press conference for the film in Los Angeles, which opens on Wednesday, November 23rd 2016 for the Thanksgiving Day weekend.
Moana – Monana, (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) and Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) ©2016 Disney

Dwayne and Auli’i, you are both from Hawaii, did you know of the mythology of Maui?

Auli’i Cravalho: I’ve grown up in Hawaii all my life. I am deeply rooted to my culture. I actually go to an all-Hawaiian school. There the mythology and the folklore of Maui are in our curriculum.

Dwayne Johnson: We all grew up with stories of Maui—this great demigod who’s larger than life. It just blows you away as a kid. So it was an opportunity to showcase my culture and to be part of something that was truly historic. And I’m not saying that because I’m a little biased.

Moana – Lin Manuel Miranda at the premiere ©2016 Disney

Lin, did you do this before you started work on Hamilton?

Lin-Manuel Miranda: I’ve been working on this film for two years, seven and a half months. I can tell you that with confidence because my son turned two last week. I got this job the same day I found out I was going to be a father.

He was born two weeks before rehearsal started for Hamilton at the Public off-Broadway. So yes, I’ve been working on this since before Hamilton opened.

It actually became my oasis of calm. I would meet with our creative team every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 pm. Sometimes they’d see me in my 18th century blouse because I had a curtain at 7:00.

It was a great break. If I was sick of the (Founding Fathers) rapping, I would go sail across the sea with Maui and Moana. It was the counterweight to the Hamilton phenomenon. 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.

Dwayne and Auli’i, as you are both Polynesian, what do you hope that your people will take away from watching Moana?

Moana – Auli’i Cravalho, voice of Moana, at the premiere ©2016 Disney

Auli’i: I’m really excited for everyone to see this film and I know my friends and family are thrilled. We’re all very proud of this (movie).

I will admit this truthfully, that before I was working on this film I was a bit wary of it. I think when anyone thinks of someone making a film inspired by their culture, they want it to be done right. And Disney has done a wonderful job.

Dwayne: Really well said. Respect and pride are very big in our culture, too.

There was some hesitance from a lot of people in our culture. What’s going to happen if our culture’s going to be showcased for the very first time on this level? I feel like the Polynesian people are going to be incredibly proud of the movie.

There’s so much noise that’s happening in our world today, but you’ve always got to listen to the little voice, your gut, your intuition. You can do things, you can go beyond boundaries and you have to trust that instinct. Those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away. And the rest of the world will take away.

Moana – Dwayne Johnson, voice of Maui, at the premiere ©2016 Disney

Lin, you’ve created something that seamlessly blends old and new music. What was the technique to make it seem like The Little Mermaid, but also like Hamilton?

Lin-Manuel: When I first interviewed for this job I walked into a room with Ron and John, makers of my favorite Disney film of all time, The Little Mermaid. I said, ‘You’re the reason I even get to walk into this room.’ I think I probably scared them a little bit because I’d quote some obscure section of the movie they had since forgotten about.

I love those movies and you want to maintain the best of the Disney traditions. At the same time, we’re telling this very unique story from this very unique part of the world.

I will admit the first time I sat down at my piano to work on it I remember thinking, don’t think about Let it Go (from Frozen), don’t think about Let it Go!

But you solve that problem by just really getting inside the heads of your characters. My way into Moana, in particular, was the way she feels the call of the sea is the way I felt about writing music, making movies and singing songs.

I was 16 years old and living on 200th Street in Manhattan and thinking, the distance between where I am and where I want to be seems impossibly large. So I got myself into that mindset to write her songs.

Moana – Monana, (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) and Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) ©2016 Disney

Moana Soundbyte

Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke of composing and Dwayne Johnson of singing the song, ‘You’re Welcome’, in the movie – click here to listen to their conversation.

Moana – Actor Dwayne Johnson and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda perform onstage at the World Premiere. This was at the El Capitan Theatre on Monday, November 14, 2016 in Hollywood, CA ©2016 Disney, photo by Alberto E Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.