Dwyane Johnson stars as Maui, a boisterous demi-god who is a trickster and can morph into any animal he chooses, in Disney’s latest animated feature Moana. While the character can let some of his godly acts and heroism feed his ego, it is Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), the 16-year-old daughter of a chief, who teaches him a lesson in modesty and helps him find his lost identity as she searches for her own. Together, they voyage across the ocean to return the Heart of Tefiti to its rightful place in hopes that it will restore all life to what it once was.
We were recently invited to sit down with fellow journalists at the press conference for the film, where Johnson and Cravalho talked about bringing the spirit of Aloha to Moana and what it meant for them to share their Polynesian culture with the world. Check out what they had to say below.
In a way, Moana is unlike any other film we’ve seen before. The amount of research that went into the film took a number of years and led to the formation of the Oceanic Story Trust, where Disney gathered Polynesian elders, scholars, fisherman, tattoo artist, linguists, and more to help them honor their culture. But the animated feature also got help from Johnson and Cravalho, who brought the spirit of Aloha to the film. “I am deeply rooted to my culture,” said Cravalho. “I actually go to an all-Hawaiian school where the mythology and the folklore of Maui is in our curriculum and I’ve listened to his stories as bedtime. I’ve grown up with the spirit of Aloha around me.”
Johnson said, “It’s called ‘Aloha Spirit’ and it’s something that is very special; it’s very meaningful to us and our Polynesian culture and so for example, those of you who have had the opportunity to visit Hawaii or any of the Polynesian islands, it’s a very special thing.” He added, “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, musically with these masters, was just a really, really special opportunity for us.”
The entire experience has been eye-opening for Cravalho, who has been working on the project for the past two years. “I’m working with the best people in the entire world, of whom are making a film inspired by my culture, the culture that I have lived every day of my life and that is something so incredibly special, for the rest of the world to see,” said the young actress.
While Cravalho loves the work, she said that she found herself at a crossroads asking herself how she sees herself in this career while still maintaining her Polynesian identity. “I was wondering, how would I continue in this and still be Polynesian and that might be an interesting concept and it was an interesting concept for me to even think up. But as I continue in this and as I potentially might leave my home, what does that make me,” asked Cravalho. But she confidently found her answer from her family who helps keep her grounded. “Am I still grounded and rooted in the way that I want to be and I can honestly say yes,” said the actress. “Because being surrounded by my family and by the Hawaiian culture every day, it seems as though I would never lose it.” She says films like Moana help inspired her and hopes that it will inspire others as well.
As for what the two hope that audiences get out of the film, Cravalho admitted that she was a bit wary that a big budget studio would want to make a film about the Polynesian culture, but that Disney has done a wonderful job. She said, “The Oceanic Story Trust that has been put together as well as the research trips that Ron [Clements] and John [Musker] and Osnat [Shurer] when on as well, all of that has just created such a wonderful, well-rounded film that I’m excited for my people to see.” She hoped the film would inspire others to research the culture and “journey out onto their own missions and to figure out who they are as well.”
Johnson added, “As Auli’i says, with great confidence and this is my hope, too, as well, that our experience has been we were in such great hands and anyone who knows John Lasseter knows that he has manna in his soul and in his body.” The actor acknowledged how important the project was to Lasseter and the Polynesians, and praised him for creating the Oceanic Story Trust to get the story not only right, but to make sure it paid respect to the Polynesian culture. “There’s so much noise that’s happening in our world, but the little voice that you’ve always got to listen to, your gut, your intuition, you can do things, you can go beyond boundaries and you have to trust that gut and instinct,” said Johnson. “So those are the things I feel like our people are going to take away and the rest of the world will take away.”
Moana opens in theaters on November 23, 2016.