Now, they are responsible for Disney's next hit, "Moana," which promises to usher in another kind of rebirth for the studio, one that harkens back to the Renaissance full of Disney "princesses" with a new, forward-thinking heroine in the title character. Moviefone recently sat down with the directors to discuss the genesis of the new project and the new tech they used to bring it to life, and the legacy of Disney's princesses.
Moviefone: I was a teenager when "Little Mermaid" came out, and it was a big part of my life. And the last film you made was in 2009, "The Princess and The Frog." Here we are, seven years later, with "Moana."
John Musker: We spent five years on this project. We did spend a year on another project that didn't quite get going, but, yes, here we are again.
Ron Clements: Most of the films, they are a big part of your life, they take at least, four to five years.Musker: He's been at Disney for 43 years, I've been there for 40. We're long time Disney guys.
With "Moana," we're seeing a very authentic representation of the culture here. Can you talk about how you flipped it from the usual "Western" idea of Polynesian culture to representing it accurately?
Clements: The trip we took there was a big game changer for us, cause we knew it from that Western point of view. We have a development department with the studio executives who help get things going and they arranged a trip for us, about five years ago, for three weeks. They made sure it was not a "western" trip, it was more an island trip.
We talked to cultural ambassadors, anthropologists, linguists, choreographers, and we got to visit villages and go sailing with Fijian fisherman. All of this got us in touch with some of the deeper culture, sort of the pre-Christian culture of those islands. They really made a personal impression on us, we felt like we connected with them. Pape Mape, an elder from Moorea, he kinda said to us, "For years we've been swallowed by your culture, one time, can you be swallowed by ours?"
We felt like we really owed it to them to try to do that. When we came back, we were infused with the ideas we learned about navigation, their connection to the ocean, how the ocean being a living thing -- having feelings and emotions -- so we reworked the story. It was really Ron's idea -- our original story was built around Maui more -- and then he was like, "what if we do it around a sixteen-year-old girl, who has the blood of her ancestors in her?" That sounded like a great story and it tied into the culture well; that's ultimately what we pitched to John Lasseter, he liked that new take, and we built on that.
The technology to animate the ocean wasn't quite there in the beginning... So did the story develop as the technology evolved, or...?
Musker: We assumed that the technology would catch up to the story. Dangerous assumption.
Clements: The ambitions were there from early on. I think after that first trip, people talked about the ocean as if it were alive. We were with a navigator in Fiji, on a taumako, like they were thousands of years ago, who would caress the ocean, so you have to speak gently to the ocean. Right away, it's like, the ocean's gotta be a character in the movie, we want to make it a character.
Also, anthropomorphizing nature is very much part of mythology, that's a recurring thing. We knew we were going to have a living island and a lava monster, and things like that. Those things existed from a concept standpoint, from a story standpoint. These things, particularly things like anthropomorphic nature and living oceans, they combine two areas of animation that are usually separate. We have what we call "character animation," and they're the actors of the movie, and they really bring the character life in terms of their thought process and their personalities. And we have effects animators, who do things like the water and the ocean and fire -- and usually they are separate -- but we knew, in this, they were going to combine. In fact, the scene -- where the little toddler Moana meets the ocean for the first time -- that was actually the very first thing animated for the movie, and it was done way in advance of everything else. We thought that scene would be in the movie, but it was designed as a test to begin with.
Musker: For awhile, the story evolved where that scene wasn't in the movie.
Clements: For a little bit.
Musker: And we were like: "No, we gotta keep it."
Clements: But the test went on, either way, and a lot of things got figured out in that test, and that's kind of how that happened.
The music was so key to this story. At what point did you start thinking about where the music would fit?
Musker: We try to get music involved as early as we can because we want it to tell the story.
Clements: Even on our first trip five years ago, the music of the islands that we heard -- and we heard it everywhere -- which we didn't necessarily expect. People sing welcome songs, farewell songs... when you're with the village there's prayer, and celebration, it's everywhere we went.
Musker: And I had researched the music, I had a playlist of about 30 songs that were traditionally sung in the islands that I played over and over. We played those for Mark Mancina, who did the score, and he loves the harmonies, in particular, of those islands. It was really our producer, who found Te Vaka, Opetaia Foi'a, and then listen to his music.
Musker: He even has songs about navigation and sailing, and how important that was to the culture.
Clements: So then, we wanted to pair him with a narrative storyteller, someone that could tell a story in song. We went to New York three years ago, and interviewed a bunch of musicians, Lin-Manuel Miranda was one of those.
Musker: The musical team that these three guys -- Lin, Mark, and Opetaia -- create, they each bring something very different and special. It's this kind of alchemy, you could definitely put together three guys like that together and it might not work at all. But in this case...
Clements: They were giving guys and they were super talented in their own areas. They found ways to give each other space, to back off sometimes and other times, to take the lead. The whole score worked that way.
There's been a lot of talk about princess culture, whether it's embracing it or pushing away from it. In "Moana," we have a new sort of heroine that is kind of leading the way. Can you talk about what your views are for a new princess culture?
Musker: She is absolutely leading the way. Early on, we thought of this as a coming of age story. She's the hero of the story, she's the heroine. It's her finding herself, her leading the way, her responding to her own voice. We never really had a romance in the story, we thought we didn't need one. Gender was, in some ways, taken out of the equation. It was just a strong, empathetic character who was capable of great physical stuff. We liked the idea of having, kind of, an action-adventure princess that could dive off cliffs and battle monsters.
Clements: She's got this determination, this grit, that no matter how many times she gets knocked down, she gets back up again.
Musker: Rachel House, she did the voice for Grandma Tala, she's in some ways the emotional heart and soul of the movie. She's an actress of New Zealand descent, and she has been moved to tears by the movie. She told us, on several occasions, "I can't wait to see the effect of this movie on girls around the world." It's a source of pride, and empowerment.
Disney's "Moana" opens everywhere November 23.