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How Disney Is Bringing Polynesian Princess 'Moana' to Life

Ron Clements and John Musker are no strangers to Disney princesses. After all, the directing duo were the ones who gave us Ariel ("The Little Mermaid"), Jasmine ("Aladdin"), Megara ("Hercules") and Tiana ("The Princess and The Frog"). They have been praised for the rebirth of Disney Animation during the aptly named “Disney Renaissance” of the late '80s-'90s.

Now, they'll be releasing their latest Disney film, the Polynesian-themed "Moana," on November 23.

In 2011, while searching for their next filmmaking venture, they were inspired by oral histories from people of the Pacific Islands. Three thousand years ago, Polynesian voyagers sailed across the Pacific discovering thousands of islands. But then, the voyages stopped for 1,000 years, and though there are many theories, no one knows why they stopped.

This got the directors imaginations going wild with ideas, to which Clements asked, “What if there happened to be one young girl that was responsible for things starting up again?” And that’s when “Moana” was born.

Who Is Moana?

“Our heroine’s name, Moana, means 'ocean' in several of the Pacific Island languages” said Musker at a recent press conference about Disney’s first Polynesian princess. “The movie is built around her love of the ocean. She’s 16, the daughter of a chief. She’s fearless, she’s high-spirited. She’s very smart, she’s very nimble, athletic and she’s, may I use the word ‘bad-ass’? Because she is. She’s unlike any of the heroines we’ve done before in many ways.”

In order to make sure the story paid respect to and held on to the Polynesian culture, the Disney team met with a group they assembled from several islands they called the “Oceanic Trust." This trust was comprised of not just scholars, but also locals like fishermen, tattoo artists and more.

“We wanted to meet people who grew up on islands,” said Clements, “we wanted to listen and learn what makes these Pacific Island cultures so remarkable.”

Designing Moana

A lot of that research was handed down to art director Bill Schwab and visual development artist Neysa Bove, who then used the research and photos to create the design of Moana.

“We do a lot of exploration on our main characters, “said Schwab of the intense design process. “We want to turn over every rock, try everything and make our films feel very unique.”

John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation, asked the team to create something that would be unique to Moana, so Bove and her team designed a necklace made with an abalone mollusk that is found in the Pacific Islands. “For the design, I added a curve to the abalone, and it has a juxtaposition between land and sea. Being a voyager, she navigates looking at the stars, so I added star carvings to the top of it, which made it very specific to her, and it became our special piece.”

Bringing Moana to Life

The biggest piece of the puzzle was finding the part that would bring the research, design and story together—the voice of Moana.

“When we were casting the character of Moana, we were looking for somebody that could embody something that isn’t easy to find,” said Osnat Shurer, a producer of "Moana." “There’s a strength, a power, a fearlessness to our lead character that’s combined with compassion and empathy, as well as being able to carry the movie with their acting and singing and bring this role to life. And finally, after many months, and listening to hundreds and hundreds of young women, we found her on the island of Oahu.”

Auli’i Cravalho, 15, was the last person casting director Rachel Sutton saw, on her very last day of casting in Hawaii. Cravalho then received a callback based on a video audition. According to a video we saw during an early press day, the directors had her react to a few different scenarios before they gave her the news that they wanted her to be Moana.

Not much is known, yet, about the new Disney princess. But, much like audiences will be discovering Moana as it hits the big screen on November 23 (just a day after Cravalho’s 16th birthday), Cravalho will be finding out just what it means to be part of Disney royalty.

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