Inspired in part by oral histories of the people and cultures of Oceania, the Walt Disney Animation Studios feature Moana is a sweeping adventure about an adventurous teenager (voiced by newcomer Auli‘i Cravalho) who sails out on a daring mission to save her people. Equal parts brave and compassionate, the16-year-old daughter of the chief cannot deny how drawn she is to the ocean, so when she must journey out on her own to find Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), demigod of the wind and sea, and save her people, she lets her strength and determination guide her.
During a conference at the film’s press day, Johnson (who voices the big-egoed, hilarious demigod, Maui) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who wrote some incredibly memorable and catchy original songs, as part of a team that includes Mark Mancina and Opetaia Foaʻi) talked about achieving an authentic classic Disney feel for Moana, representing the Polynesian culture, getting inside the heads of the characters when writing the songs, collaborating together on “You’re Welcome,” and just how emotional they got when they saw the finished film.
Question: This movie feels like a classic Disney animated movie. How did you go about achieving that authentic feel?
LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: I got the job the week before that trip, and my job offer came a plane ticket to New Zealand, where everyone already was for the Pacifica Music Festival, which has choirs from all the different islands in the Pacific. So, we sort of immersed ourselves in this world, and then Opetaia [FoaʻI], Mark [Mancina] and I jumped into a studio and just started banging on drums and really tried 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.
Dwayne, how do you feel about the way your culture is represented in Moana?
DWAYNE JOHNSON: The Aloha spirit is something that is very special and 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, know that it’s a very special thing. It’s an intangible, and when you get off the plane and have your feet on the ground there, it energetically takes you to a different place. 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, and musically with such masters, was just a really, really special opportunity for us.
How did you guys approach working together, specifically on “You’re Welcome,” to figure out what the vocal range for that song should be?
MIRANDA: When Dwayne accepted the role, he said, “So, what are you giving me to sing?,” and he was really excited for this. For me, I went to YouTube, where the answers always lie. I’m a big fan of his wrestling days and there was a time 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 and trickster god. Once I had the title, “You’re Welcome,” which only Dwayne could pull off and still have you love him and root for him, we were off to the races.
JOHNSON: It was an opportunity to challenge myself. Lin did his research and, by the time I got the song, it was in my comfortable range, but there were also parts of the song which pushed me a little bit. I appreciate that because that’s what I needed, vocally. I had such a great time. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had, in my career, working on this project, and certainly working on that song. We all love challenges, and this was a challenge because the bar is set so incredibly high, to sing in a Disney film.
Lin, this movie seamlessly blends old and new musical magic. What made that possible?
MIRANDA: When I first interviewed for this job, I walked into a room with Ron and John, who makers of my favorite Disney film of all time, and 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 Little Mermaid that they had since forgotten about. 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 that the first time I sat down at my piano to work on this, I remember thinking, “Don’t think about ‘Let it Go.’ Don’t think about ‘Let it Go.’ Don’t think about ‘Let it Go.’” And then, I’d start singing ‘Let it Go.’” But you solve that problem by just really, really getting inside the heads of your characters. My way into Moana, in particular, was how the way she feels the call of the sea is the way I felt about writing music and 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 mind-set to write her songs.
Did you do the music for Moana before you started work on Hamilton?
MIRANDA: I’ve been working on this film for two years and seven and a half months. I can tell you that with confidence because my son turned two last week, and I got this job the same day that 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, I’ve been working on this since before Hamilton opened, concurrently with Hamilton as we went through previews, and then through Hamilton once we opened. It actually became my oasis of calm. I would meet with our creative team, every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 pm my time, and sometimes they’d see me in my 18th century blouse because I had a curtain at 7:00. And then, I’d say, “Okay, it’s 5:30. I’ve got to go to the chiropractor.” It forced me to say no to things, but I could say yes to Moana. 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. It was actually the opposing muscle group. It was the counterweight to the Hamilton phenomenon, and it was also an island of peace when the Hamilton stuff started getting crazy, in terms of crowds and attention. 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.
After spending so much time working on this, what was it like to see it all come together?
MIRANDA: I saw a close to finished version of the film, the day after I hosted Saturday Night Live, with 300 of my closest friends. Because we were moving to London (to do Mary Poppins), it was a screenings/goodbye party, and it was so overwhelming. It made my wife cry, and she didn’t cry at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. When we got her, I was like, “We’re going to be okay.” I was very moved. Disney has a tradition of listing the names of all the children born over the course of making a movie, and I got to see my son’s name at the top of that list. That was a really crazy, full circle moment for me.
JOHNSON: In life we get an opportunity to do some cool things, and some things that are fun and that we like doing. But with something like this, I was so moved when I saw the movie, for a variety of reasons. Not only do you work on it, but you pour your heart and soul into it. The grandmother in the movie, Gramma Tala, is like my grandmother and like so many of our grandmothers. When I saw it in a theater with a group of people, what I noticed was that they were floating when they walked out of the theater. That was such a cool thing to be a part of. In my entire career, I’ve never cried, consistently, through a movie, ever. It was a very, very special thing.
Dwayne, what do you hope that people will take from seeing the Pacific Island culture represented in Moana?
JOHNSON: There was some hesitance from a lot of people in our culture about, “What’s going to happen, if our culture is going to be showcased, for the very first time, on this level and in this capacity from Disney?” I can tell you with great confidence that we were in such great hands. Anyone who knows John Lasseter knows that he has manna in his soul and in his body. This was a very important project to him, which is why he sent the boys on this mission, for the past five years, to do all the research. So, 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, but the little voice that you’ve always got to listen to is your gut and your intuition, and you can do things and go beyond boundaries, if you to trust that gut and instinct. Those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away from this, and that the rest of the world will take away.
Moana opens in theaters on November 23rd.