Annecy: ‘The Little Mermaid’ Directors Share Secrets of Upcoming ‘Moana’

Ron Clements and John Musker introduced Annecy audiences to their next aqua-friendly heroine, Moana.

Moana trailer
Courtesy of Disney

Directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker unveiled 19 minutes of their upcoming Disney animatef feature “Moana” at the Annecy Film Festival in France, where the project will be released as “Vaiana” (which means “water” in Tahitian) “for various trademark reasons that I don’t really want to get into,” according to Musker.

On track to open in the U.S. on Nov. 23, the project represents a maiden voyage into the world of computer-generated animation for the duo, who are responsible for such Disney Renaissance classics as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” and by the look of the footage shown in Annecy, it benefits from both the R&D the Mouse House has done in the realm of CG while they stuck to their guns (Clements and Musker co-directed “The Princess and the Frog”) and the hand-drawn tradition that they represent.

Set among the islands of Oceania in the South Pacific, “Moana” explores the mystery of why Polynesian explorers, who were once the world’s greatest navigators, suddenly stopped sailing for nearly 1,000 years. The film, whose title means “ocean” in various Polynesian languages, is named for its heroine (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho), the feisty 16-year-old daughter of aquaphobic Chief Tui, who forbids the people of Motunui from venturing beyond the island’s outer reef.

According to Clements, “The ocean is a character in the movie. It has a personality.” Water has been notoriously difficult for anyone to animate, of course, though it plays a key role in the most impressive of the clips the directors shared, in which young Moana has her first encounter with the sea. The scene depicts her as a young girl playing on the beach. As she approaches the water to collect seashells, it pulls back and away from her, allowing her to walk deeper and deeper without getting wet before extending what looks like a cross between a wave and a giant blue tongue out to make contact. It could be the contact scene from “The Abyss,” suggesting communion between this fearless young explorer and the ocean that will allow her to save her people.

The film’s plot, set up in the opening scene — a myth involving the trickster demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) related by Moana’s grandmother — involves the disappearance of an artifact called the Heart of Te Fiti, as well as Maui’s magic fishhook (believed to be the tool with which he created many of the Polynesian islands). Once she reaches her teens, Moana will discover the secret of her people’s seafaring past and set out on a quest that washes her ashore the same island where Maui has been stranded all these years.

Rather than conform to emerging CG design style seen in such recent Disney cartoon hits as “Tangled” and “Frozen,” where the princesses have impossibly slender bodies, topped by bobble heads with huge Bratz doll-like eyes, “Moana” appears to be a natural extension of Clements and Musker’s earlier style. If anything, their young heroine is allowed to have a bit more meat on her bones, boasting a curvaceous figure still conducive to action.

Benefitting from the way “Frozen” revived the use of showtunes in Disney cartoons, the directors have tapped a trio of talented musicians to collaborate on the film. Samoan-born, New Zealand-formed singer-songwriter Opetaia Foa’i (who founded the group Te Vaka) provides the roots to the local music traditions — just one of countless ways in which the filmmakers tried to pay respects to the Oceanic culture by incorporating local artists and experts into the project. He is joined by multiple Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who created and stars in “Hamilton” on Broadway. And helping to synthesize these two incredible talents and incorporate their work into the film is composer Mark Mancina, who was instrumental in the music of “The Lion King,” adapting Elton John’s and Tim Rice’s contributions to fit the film.

One of the clips depicted the scene where Moana and Maui meet, cutting short just before the Rock sings a musical number written by Miranda. While Maui is a big, hulking character, he looks nothing like the wrestler who voices him, covered from fingers to neck in tribal tattoos, including one — whom the filmmakers call “Mini-Maui” — that is animated in 2D silhouette by Eric Goldberg, responsible for the genie in “Aladdin.”

Among the various obstacles Moana and Maui face (which also includes a journey through the Polynesian underworld) are the Kakamora, which Clements described as a race of “treasure-hunting, coconut-clad little pirates.” Moana’s only other companion on her trip is a stowaway rooster named Hei Hei, whom the Kakamora kidnap, setting up the chance for a spectacular rescue storyboarded by John Ripa. “Of course, he was inspired by ‘Mad Max,’” Musker explained after a clip whose rope swinging tricks and dynamic camera could only be possible in CG. “If you see the movie, it’s like Disney meets ‘Fury Road,’” he promised.