Directors John Musker and Ron Clements on Creating the World of 'Moana' — and How 'Little Mermaid' Almost Got Sunk

·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

You may not recognize their names and your kids definitely don’t know. But chances are you have all enjoyed the movies of John Musker and Ron Clements. Most likely over and over again. Musker and Clements are arguably the most accomplished contemporary Disney Animation directors, having helmed the hit ‘toons The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and The Princess and the Frog (2009).

For the past five years, Musker, 62, and Clements, 63, have been toiling on the Mouse House’s next animated tentpole, the action-adventure Moana. Set in ancient Oceania, the story follows the navigationally skilled 16-year-old title character (voiced by newcomer Auli’I Cravalho), who teams up with the wise-cracking demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) on a seafaring adventure that will determine the fate of her remote village.

Moana is a notable departure for the hand-drawn animation vets, marking their first foray into the computer-generated technology that now dominates the medium. Yahoo Movies talked to Musker and Clements about their adventures in both Polynesia and CGI, pitching the film to Disney-Pixar’s head honcho John Lasseter, and how Little Mermaid almost got deep-sixed in favor of Splash 2.

What inspired you guys to make Moana? Were you guys with this project since the very beginning?
John Musker:
Yeah, we pitched it. We were trying to get a new film going after The Princess and the Frog. It doesn’t always work this way, but [typically] directors here pitch three ideas to John Lasseter and out of that something emerges. So we went through a series of these, and one of them was the idea of doing a Polynesian-themed movie. I had been intrigued [by the culture]. I had read books set in that area by Herman Melville, like Typee, and Joseph Conrad novels, and I had seen paintings by Paul Gauguin. I just thought it was such a beautiful, rich, inviting and exotic place. These are Western points of view, so that lead me to actually read Polynesian mythology, and I discovered what a rich vein of storytelling it was… And then particularly there was this character of Maui, and he seemed so animation-friendly to me. He was a shape-shifter. He was bigger than life. He was this folk hero. He could literally pull up islands with this hook… So we pitched John a very simple story. He said, “I love the arena, and I love the idea of doing this, but you got to dig deeper and do the research now.” That lead to this research trip [to the islands of the Pacific Ocean as part of a team dubbed the Oceanic Story Trust], and that was a really transformative trip. That’s when the idea became a story more based around navigation.
Ron Clements: We really refashioned the whole story based on that trip. Pretty much the only element that really stayed was the character of Maui.

Considering the diversity of Disney’s recent animated output in the past few decades, including your own films like Aladdin and Princess and the Frog, did the fact that Moana explored this new culture in a new corner of the globe help as a selling point?

Musker: That was appealing to me, and I think John likes the worlds of whatever movie, even if it’s not in another country. Whether it’s with toys [Toy Story] or in the video-game world [Wreck-It Ralph], I think there’s something appealing to him about characters in a world that you’re being introduced to, where there’s something about the world you’re going to learn about that you didn’t know.
Clements: And then we can make that world tangible.

Related: She’s No Princess: How ‘Moana’ Continues the Evolution of Disney’s Animated Heroines

What becomes of those other pitches that John Lasseter didn’t greenlight? Do you remember what they were? And do you think you’d ever return to them?
We remember what they are. It was the same when we did The Princess and the Frog, which was the first film that we did with John Lasseter. We’ve known John for years and years.
Musker: I went to school with John at Cal Arts. But with the other pitches, I think legally if you pitch it to the studio, they kind of own it. But some people have gotten them back. Certainly it’s possible for us, if we wind up doing another movie here, we can return to one of those other pitches, if we’re still enthused and we can get John enthused about it. Even with Little Mermaid… there were a few ideas that were pitched at that meeting—
Clements: I pitched Little Mermaid at what was the first “Disney Gong Show” with [former Disney execs] Michael Eisenberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. They had a bunch of us trying to come up with ideas for animated films, and we actually got gonged. But then it got ungonged.

Wait, The Little Mermaid got gonged?
Yeah, initially they said, “We’re doing a sequel to Splash. We don’t want to do another mermaid movie.” We were like, “Really? You don’t want to do this? This is going to be kind of special.” And then they gave it a reprieve when they read the two-page treatment Ron wrote. They read that and said, “Oh, there might be something here. Disney does fairy tales and this is a fairy tale we haven’t done.” So they put it into development after initially saying, “Nah, forget it.”

Related: Director’s Reel: Ron Howard on ‘Splash,’ ‘Cocoon,’ ‘Apollo 13, and More

How did your other Disney successes inform your approach to Moana?
Well, I think we’ve always liked music in storytelling, certainly… I started listening to music from the area, which again I only knew superficially, hearing Tevaka, this great band. Hearing field recordings of this British guy David Fanshawe, who recorded these great local choirs that sang a cappella and did this really powerful, moving music. And we wanted to get this music into the movie. That was part of our pitch. There’s music all over the islands.
Clements: We’ve done a lot of musicals, and a lot of fantasy.
Musker: And what we always look for, which was applicable in Mermaid and Aladdin and Hercules and just about all of them, is a story that feels legitimized in animation. Of course now it’s tricky because live-action has become so much like animation. You see Avatar, or you see Jungle Book, the Jon Favreau version — I don’t care what they say, those are pretty much animated films. But we’re looking for a story that uses the medium of animation and takes of advantage of it, whether or not it’s hand-drawn, like Maui’s tattoos, or it’s CGI, like the idea of bringing an ocean to life, and it having a personality, which would be tough to do in live-action.

How has this one been different, especially in regards to working in CG?
It’s been its own adventure, its own journey. We’ve had some periods of quite a bit of struggle, and hitting some rough waters, and getting lost at places…. It’s been a unique experience, aside from the fact that it’s a different medium. We’ve had to learn and go back to school and we’ve had classes to teach us what’s different.
Musker: The pipeline and the production process is different in CG, but the front-end is still essentially the same. Where you’re developing a story, you’re storyboarding it. They have new tools to storyboard now. There are Cintiqs, which are pressure-sensitive tablets that you could storyboard more easily on, things like that. But the front part is really the same as it was then. It’s been great that we’ve been able to bring some of the great hand-drawn animators like Eric Goldberg or Mark Henn to do stuff on this essentially CG film. And there’s a great young staff of [digital] animators that we’ve gotten to know.
Clements: It’s come full-circle, there’s an incredible staff here at Disney that’s built up over years, and some of them grew up with Aladdin and Little Mermaid and those films.
Musker: Some of these young animators, it’s kind of funny, I see their posts on Twitter and they’re like, “My inner-8-year-old is squealing.” Because they basically saw Aladdin when they were 8 and now they’re animating with us on a movie. It’s like, “These old guys! We’re with these old guys!”

Moana opens everywhere Nov. 23.