Walt Disney Animation Studios had a phenomenal 2016. In addition to releasing "Zootopia," the surprisingly topical animated detective movie, genuine box office juggernaut (with over $1 billion globally), and current Best Animated Feature Oscar frontrunner, they released, later in the year, "Moana," the beautiful tale of female empowerment and seafaring conquest. It was the cherry on top of an incredible year, and one that I cannot wait to watch again on home video (it's available now on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere and on Blu-ray March 7).
To help celebrate "Moana's" home video debut, I went to the newly renovated Walt Disney Animation Studios, still located in the famous "hat building" that was constructed after the Disney Renaissance of the late-'80s/early-'90s. It was here that select journalists got to sample the disc's special features, say hello to members of the production team (it's always good to chat with veteran animator Eric Goldberg, who contributed the "Mini Maui" character to "Moana") and talk to some of the people who brought "Moana" to life.
I sat down with co-director Ron Clements, the man responsible for such animated classics as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," and his producer on "Moana," Osnat Shurer, who ushered a number of memorable Pixar short films to the screen (including "One Man Band" and "Lifted"), about what it was like to show "Moana" to the world, what the movie's political undertones mean today, and what, exactly, "Thor Ragnarok" director Taika Waititi's first draft of the script was like. (John Musker, Ron's partner-in-crime, was out sick on the day that the media event was held.)The last time I spoke to you guys, it was before the movie had opened and there was a lot of hope about a movie that was led by such a strong female character would open in a country also led by a strong female. Things didn't go that way, and it makes the movie more important.
Ron Clements: There's a serendipity with both "Moana" and "Zootopia." When "Zootopia" was first starting out, the movie was interesting but it wasn't as relevant. It's the same with "Moana." It's sort of like events converged and that aspect of it became the most important part of it. We're always thinking story.
Osnat Shurer: But we were conscious of making a whole character. There's this weird thing where if it's a female protagonist you've got to make her whole in and of herself. I'm already in a world where it's not radical. But it's gone the other way.
Ron: We always liked the idea that there was no romance in the story. There was never an aspect of that. And we were kind of afraid of it because it seemed kind of risky. All of the female protagonists that we'd worked on before, there was an element of a love story. It was like, How are people going to react to this? We didn't know but we figured it was worth doing. Then, by the time it came out, it had a symbolism to it because of world events that we weren't expecting.
Osnat: As a woman in an industry not known for its inclusion in the past, it's not a big surprise that there was conversation about her being a strong female protagonist and I'm glad there was. But I do look forward to a time when the creative decision makers in a room are 50/50 no matter who the story is about. The fact of the inclusion in the film, both of her as a female protagonist of the indigenous culture that inspired movie, that is for us, just the right way to do things. I'll stand behind it. The story led but within all of that, we wanted to do it right. We wanted to have conversations with the people who inspired the movie. We wanted them in the core creative team. We wanted a strong protagonist. And the idea of this person with compassion and courage together is uniquely our heroine.
It's obviously going to mean so much to young women and young women of color to see them represented like this.
Ron: It has.
Osnat: My niece in Israel won't go to school until she's dressed in her Moana costume and gotten her photo taken. She's got big black curly hair and looks just like her. She looks stunning. Of course her aunt made the movie. But she fully identifies with her.
The movie has a great environment theme that also seems to resonate now more than ever.
Ron: It has a little more resonance in light of recent events but it was always a part of the story. Spending time in the islands did highlight something that is very important.
Osnat: There are islands that are at the forefront of what is happening. There are atolls and islands that are basically at sea level. Some, at the highest point, are 15 feet above sea level. They have a relationship with nature that we tried to capture in the film that has an organic quality that we could all learn from today.
Ron: One thing I didn't know that was a little surprising, but makes sense, when we were talking to people ... People, when they would first come to a new island, in terms of the great migration, wouldn't be that respectful of nature to begin with. They would tend to exploit the resources but on an island, as soon as you do that, they learned really fast what the world is learning a little bit slower, because the effects were immediate. And the effects of the opposite were immediate too -- if you nurture the land, if you take care of it, if you respect it, you can sustain existence.
Osnat: That got built into the rituals and into the taboos and into the actual culture. This idea that nature is personified, that the ocean knows what you're doing, that you apologize to a tree before you cut it down, these indigenous ideas, they create a different relationship with nature. They make us part of nature that we're living in rather than being in opposition to it and just being able to use it for ourselves. And that's huge.
Ron: You just feel it, when you're there. You can feel it.What has it been like taking the movie around the world?
Ron: It's been great. It's been really gratifying. We really, really did connect with the people of the islands and we wanted the people of the islands to recognize themselves and recognize their culture and connect with the movie. And yet at the same time these things, you want them to work universally for people all over the world. If you go too specific will people in one place relate to it but people in another place won't relate to at all? But it doesn't feel like that. The movie is really relatable. Which is always true -- the more specific you make it the more relatable and universal it became.
Osnat: Every culture identifies with a certain part of it. I was in Italy on an earlier tour before I went with the directors and one of the reporters was, in Italian, going, "The grandmother, the grandmother ..." And it was so real to him. This was in Italy. In Japan, they are drawn to the cuteness and the sweetness and of course her relationship with her grandmother. In each place, it's the adventure or something else.
Ron: Her character always resonates strongly. Certain humor can play differently but Moana really plays universally as someone you care about and root for.
Osnat: I showed the film in Fiji and it wasn't even done yet and they didn't speak English but the kids would be screaming laughing everytime Hei-Hei showed up. I showed it on a turned-around cloth on a wall in a pavilion.
As a huge fan of his, I wanted to know what Taika Waititi's draft of the movie was like. Can you talk about that?
Ron: I think so. Taika was the first writer on the movie. We weren't that familiar with him and, then we realized he was part of "Flight of the Conchords." We had a rough outline of the basic storyline. This is basically the story except that she did have six brothers and the situation had more of that aspect. We recognized that was sort of a dated idea, like, Because I'm not a boy I have to try harder and prove myself more. So Taika's draft reflected that. But he's a really great writer and we had a script reading that got the movie made.
Osnat: He likes to joke that "The part that I wrote that's still in the movie is EXT: OCEAN – DAY." But the truth is that he brought a spirit of very specific Pacific Island humor. It's slightly irreverent what he brought into the film and [it] gave us permission to continue down that road because he's from that culture and he taught us how to keep humor in the movie. It was a really great version of the beats we had then. But it's an animated movie. That was five years ago.
Ron: We were really happy with the script and it got the movie going.
Osnat: He left because he directed three movies!
Ron: We knew that Taika wasn't the writer who was going to stay in the building, which you have to do, and work with the story artists and be a part of it in the recording sessions. We knew he was too busy.
Osnat: As he likes to joke, he had two kids and did three movies in the time he would have been on the movie. But he brought a lot to it in terms of cultural richness that translated later and stayed in the film.
"Moana" is out now on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere and on Blu-ray on March 7th.