Special thanks to Disney for the magical trip to Los Angeles to cover the World Premiere of Moana and its press events.
You know you’re dealing with someone who has a sense of humor when they walk in a room and announce themselves as Dwayne Johnson when they are very clearly NOT Dwayne Johnson. That’s exactly what happened when John Musker walked into our interview roundtable in Los Angeles in November. The only other director I had ever interviewed had been Jon Favreau, and he’s also an actor, so prior to this interview I felt there was a lot more depth to interviewing someone who wears many hats. Let’s just say I started Thanksgiving early with a hearty serving of Crow Pie. How much more deep can you possibly get when talking to two men who brought life to The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, and Moana? It’s really quite incredible, and they were ridiculously easy to talk to, and funny.
Ron & John have directed three of five of the princesses of color in the Disney film franchise, and they really took Polynesian culture into account before even pitching the film to Disney. Getting it right was very important to them.
John: Well, the big thing was we did a huge research five years ago when we first pitched the movie. We spent like three weeks in Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti. We met with cultural ambassadors, linguists, anthropologists…
Ron: Sailors and chiefs and…
John: Yeah, we got to sail in Fiji with navigators and we really tried to connect with those people. It wasn’t like “Oh, tough gig, you got to go to Tahiti for three weeks.” We really tried to connect with the culture and learn how proud they were of their background as the greatest navigators the world has ever seen. They use dead reckoning to find their way across the sea.
Ron: The importance of respect for nature, respect for the environment, and also the interconnectedness and extended families, and the idea of your heritage and your legacy. We heard this expression in Tahiti, “Know your mountain.” Your mountain is essentially everything that led up to you, all the people that led up to you, everything that happened, all of the things that if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t exist. And, and they said if you don’t know your mountain you really don’t know who you are.
That last point was really grounding for me. I believe the same thing. If you don’t face everything that makes you, you, you really don’t know who “you” are – the good, the bad and the ugly. They heard this quote from a man on a Tahitian island, who spoke only Tahitian, and when translated, the man had said:
“For years, we’ve been swallowed by your culture. One time can you be swallowed by our culture?”
So Ron and John took that absolutely to heart, and it became their mantra as they did the movie over the course of years. They kept people from the Pacific Islands involved, they had an Oceanic story trust that they bounced story ideas, costume ideas, and the way characters appeared throughout the entire process. One character they had to change from what they thought he would look like was Maui.
John: Early in the process, Maui was bald. He had no hair. Some drawings were a little more like Dwayne, but when some people saw it from Tahiti they said no, no, no – long hair is part of his power, so, he’s got to have long hair. So, we, said okay, forget it, he’s going to have long hair. We looked at Troy Polamalu, this great Polynesian football player’s long hair, and people from the islands, we had seen these great dudes with great manes of hair. And so we gave him that kind of hair.
The movie was originally about Maui, but once the two directors went to the Polynesian islands they shifted their focus. Ron decided the movie should be about Moana, which means ocean, and the whole thing should be built around her and her journey. Along the way, they would find themselves focusing on Maui’s story and think to themselves, “No, this has to be in service to her [Moana’s] story.”
John: When we went there and we heard about navigation, it was really Ron’s idea, [he thought] what if we have a character called Moana, which means ocean and we built it around her, someone who wants to be a navigator like her ancestors. And Maui, we sort of saw as a true grit type story where she really is this determined, forceful individual and she teams up with kind of a washed up, you know, some down on his luck…
Ron:…at least a flawed, seriously flawed demigod…
John: But she’s the focus of the story and so it was a challenge when we were making the movie always to keep her at the center. Sometimes Maui, because he’s kind of like a magic character, he could start to rise up and we said no, no, this has got to be in the service of her story.
Moana is no princess story. Ron and John wanted this to be a hero’s journey.
Yeah, it was really a hero’s journey. We thought of a hero’s journey for Moana. She’s on a quest to save her people. She faces numerous obstacles. She’s resilient. She’s also empathetic, which is an important part of who she is and fearless and that she really finally proves herself and becomes the person that she’s meant to be.
Did you see that? Obstacles, resilience, empathetic & fearless. I think Ron and John have figured out how to solve the existential question of “what is my purpose”.
This was Ron & John’s first foray into the world of CG and they had to be given tutorials on how to do it right. They said that it takes a lot longer to get started because it’s not as simple as picking up a pencil and a piece of paper and getting to work. There’s a lot more that goes into CG animation. One of the things that really stuck with them through the process was working with young men and women who saw them as mentors. It reminded them of their early days at Disney 40-something years ago, where their mentors were in their 60s and they really looked up to them.
John: A lot of the animation we work on, the CG animators, are in their 20s and 30s. They saw Little Mermaid when they were eight years old and they’re like, “This is what got me in animation, and now I’m working with you old guys.” So, that was kind of fun.
Ron: Yeah, I was 20 when I started at Disney, been there 43 years. I think John’s close to that….
John: 40, I’m at 40, yeah.
Ron: So I worked with Frank Thomas who’s a legendary animator. He was my mentor and he was 62 and I was 20 and now I’m 63 and we’re working with a lot of very, very young people and people that are really excited and gung-ho and they’re just so eager and it’s really great.
Maui’s tattoos are hand drawn and John and Ron got to work with Eric Goldberg who did Genie in Aladdin. The younger CG artists were thrilled to get to work with this living animation legend.
JOHN : A lot of the younger [CG artists], were thrilled to get a chance to work with Eric where they would do the CG Maui and he would do the hand-drawn part of Mini-Maui and they could kind of learn from Eric and see his techniques in terms of the acting and his timing and his comic sensibilities. They were thrilled to get a chance to learn from this kind of living legend of animation.
For them, that has been the really fun part of making the switch from hand drawn animation to CG.
Failure isn’t the end of the line, and John knows all too well about failure, believe it or not.
I almost worked on Pete’s Dragon but I flunked my in-between test. That’s a true story. Brad Burton and I were new trainees just as I was getting going, they said we need more help on Pete’s Dragon. Here, do this test where you do the in-betweens, the drawings between the drawings. And our drawings were so crude they said, “Okay, forget it.” So, we didn’t get to work on Pete’s Dragon.
Moral of the story: Keep going so you can spend your life putting Easter Eggs in beautiful Disney films in between trips to exotic locations for story and cultural research.
Speaking of Easter Eggs, Ron and John admitted to a few that made their way into the movie. They didn’t tell us where they are, but they did tell us WHAT some of them are, so if you’re looking for Easter Eggs in Moana, here are a few hints:
Mommy Blogger: Squirt in the very beginning, and of course Sebastian in the end credits.
Ron: And did you see Sven? He’s the easiest one.
There are many others and we will not tell you what they are. We will give you some clues. We will tell you what they are but not where they are. And they’re really interesting and some are very difficult. Some are a little easier, some are not. But Olaf is in the movie, and you might think how can a snowman be in there but he’s in there a couple of times.
John: In a tricky way. Flounder from Little Mermaid is in there briefly. And actually, Flash, the sloth from Zootopia.
Ron: Baymax. You’ve got to kind of look at the right part of the scree to find them.
John: Wreck-it Ralph is in there very briefly.
My burning question is now “Is Genie’s lamp an Easter Egg on Tamatoa’s shell?”
And now the answer to your original question, “What do The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, & Moana” have in common? Ron Clements and John Musker directed all of those films.
If you had any question as to whether or not Moana was for you, I hope the answer to that last question solves it and you go see Moana in theaters NOW!
From Walt Disney Animation Studios comes Moana, a sweeping, CG-animated feature film about an adventurous teenager who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. During her journey, Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho) meets the once-mighty demigod Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson), who guides her in her quest to become a master wayfinder. Together, they sail across the open ocean on an action-packed voyage, encountering enormous monsters and impossible odds, and along the way, Moana fulfills the ancient quest of her ancestors and discovers the one thing she’s always sought: her own identity. Directed by the renowned filmmaking team of Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess & the Frog) and produced by Osnat Shurer (Lifted, One Man Band), Moana sails into U.S. theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.