“Partway through Moana, an animated musical due out Nov. 23, the titular character’s traveling companion, a tattooed demigod named Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), refers to her as a princess. “I am not a princess,” Moana says. “If you wear a dress and you have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he counters. But Disney’s latest heroine, a 16-year-old Polynesian voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, puts an end to this mansplaining. She doesn’t do it with a witty retort; instead she does it by navigating the ocean, defeating a pissed-off lava monster and saving the world with a dimwitted pet chicken in tow.
The newest Disney character to join the ranks of Belle and Ariel is, in fact, just what she says she is: a heroine. That’s the point, say directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who helmed such classics of the genre as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. “We saw this as a hero’s journey, a coming-of-age story, in a different tradition than the princess stories,” says Clements. Adds Musker: “I don’t know that any of the other princesses we’ve been involved with we’d describe as badass.”
The idea for an animated feature set in the Pacific Islands was conceived five years ago by Musker, who was inspired by the novels of Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad and paintings by Paul Gauguin. Recognizing that all of these perspectives on the region came through the eyes of westerners, he began a deep dive into Polynesian mythology, culminating in a trip, along with longtime partner Clements, to Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji.
During the trip, Musker and Clements rendezvoused with archaeologists and linguists, choreographers and village chiefs. By the time they left, a central theme was beginning to come into focus: navigation. “We learned about dead reckoning, where they sailed by their knowledge of the stars and the currents,” explains Musker. “It was very much a source of pride to them that they were the world’s greatest navigators in doing so…”