Moana is the first Polynesian Princess to join the Disney ohana. Director and Producer team Ron Clements and John Musker (Littler Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog) were joined by screenwriter Jared Bush (Zootopia), co-head of Animation Amy Smeed (Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6), and producer Osnat Shurer (Pixar shorts) on the “Moana: Art of Story” panel July 21, 2016 at San Diego Comic Con.

Moana Panel

We were lucky to get a closer glimpse into the next Disney Animated Feature, Moana.

The Story of Moana

“Three thousand years ago, the greatest sailors in the world voyaged across the vast Pacific, discovering the many islands of Oceania. But then, for a millennium, their voyages stopped – and no one knows why.”

This is a tale of how Polynesians came to navigate across the seas again, and how one person made a difference.


Princess Moana Waialiki (Auli’i Cravalho) is the 16-year old daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison, Jango Fett, Star Wars). She is strong, independent-minded, “spitting vinegar” and a bit of a “Bada**” as described by our panel.


With generations of sea-faring ancestry, Moana cannot resist the call of the ocean, despite her father’s decree that “no one goes beyond the reef.”


Moana’s grandmother, Tala (Rachel House, Whale Rider), is a historian who is in tune with her people. She shares Moana’s love of the ocean and tells her stories of the demi-god Maui.


Maui (Dwayne Johnson, Furious 7, Central Intelligence) is so powerful, he “pulls islands out of the sea” with his magical fishhook. On one of his adventures, however, trickster Maui stole the ‘heart of Te Fiki,’ lost his magical fishhook, and became shipwrecked on an island. (‘Te Fiki’ is a best-guess spelling).

Without the heart of ‘Te Fiki,’ a darkness spread across the seas. This darkness is “taking away our fish” and way of life, explains Grandmother Tala.

Moana575f024d56a90 Movie Poster

Moana voyages by outrigger canoe on a quest to find Maui, make him return the heart of ‘Te Fiki,’ and restore the balance of the ocean to save her people.

In this quest, Moana fulfills the seafaring navigational destiny of her ancestors and finds a way to be true to herself and her people.

Ron and John Journey Through Polynesia

John Musker had an idea for a Polynesian mythology film about five years ago. It “seemed ideal to me for animation.” Doing some research, he pitched the idea to his former CalArts suite-mate, John Lasseter (head of Disney Animation, Toy Story). It needed some more work. Having never been to Oceania, he was then “forced to go on a research trip to the South Pacific.”

Ron and John voyaged to Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, and Tahiti, and were impressed by the genuine warmth of the people of the South Pacific. They met with Chiefs, elders, and navigators, learning from their world view of having grown up on an island.

Ron and John Moana Panel

In Fiji, Ron and John explored islands by canoe and found a people with deep ties to their culture. Ron described the Polynesians as the greatest navigators, using the stars and currents to accomplish “amazing nautical feats in history” just by “dead reckoning.” This ancestry created a deep connection to the ocean throughout the Polynesian cultures.

This is relevant in modern day as well since star-based navigation has seen a resurgence. Today, the Hokule’a voyaging canoe is sailing around the world on a 1-year journey of rediscovery and good will.

“Know your mountain” was a common principle. Understand the “history of those who came before you,” said Clements.

As they traveled, Ron and John gathered an “Oceanic Story Trust,” a group of Polynesian advisors for Moana. They included anthropologists, tattoo masters, and elders that gave their guidance and blessings to the story development. The directors wanted this film to be truly authentic, incorporating cultural themes from many Polynesian countries.

Jared Bush described going through 700 drafts of the script in one year for Moana. “The story tells you want the story wants to be.”

Showing of the Japanese Trailer

The panel screened footage similar to the gorgeous Japanese trailer, depicting baby Moana interacting with the ocean as a live character. Curious and playful, she receives gifts of seashells and looks on in wonder at a sea turtle (Crush from Finding Dory?) and a living sea. She learns to love the ocean from this young age.

An Award-Winning Musical Team

Disney animated features are notable for their musical performances (how many times have you heard ‘Let it Go’ in the past year?). Disney assembled an award-winning musical team for Moana featuring:

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda: Tony Award Winner, Hamilton, also composer of the opening theme for the Tony Awards
  • Opetaia Foa’i: originally from Samoa, Senior Pacific Artist winner for his band, Te Vaka, producing Pan-Pacific music in New Zealand.
  • Mark Mancina: Grammy winner, Tarzan, The Lion King

The music in the small clips that were shown was upliftingly beautiful and set just the right beat for the film. Imagine how the final soundtrack will be!

What are you looking forward to the most in Moana?

Join us for part II of our Moana review from San Diego Comic Con, as we explore the characters in depth, as well as the authentic Polynesian details that truly distinguish this film.