The Directors Of 'Moana,' 'Aladdin,' And 'The Little Mermaid' Share Their Secrets To Success

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When I first heard about Moana — the new CGI animation movie from Disney — I just assumed the directors were going to be a couple of young new hotshots who specialize in the wonders of CGI technology. And then I realized, oh, no, Moana is being directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the same directors who brought us the now “old school,” two-dimensional classics The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules. With Moana, Clements and Musker are working with CGI animation for the first time and, yes, as they explain, it is different.

Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a Pacific Island princess who, against the orders of her father, sets sail on an adventure to save her people who have experienced a recent dearth of food. Legend has it that demigod Maui (voiced as a selfish scoundrel by a delightful Dwayne Johnson) stole a stone known as the Heart of Te Fiti, which is the cause to all of the recent problems. So Moana must first find Maui, who has disappeared, then convince him to return the stone. This is basically a buddy travel adventure comedy. (John Musker said he drew on inspiration from True Grit, which somehow works as a comparison, too.)

Ahead, Clements and Musker talk about their storied career, their habitual use of diversity in their films going back to Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog and now Moana (as they explain it, it just kind of happened, but they are happy it did), and what it’s like to work with animators who grew up on their movies.

I saw this the Thursday after the election. I’m not trying to get political, but it took my mind off things.

Musker: Yeah, I know. It’s been a crazy week, but I hear what you’re saying.

Clements: We were in Mexico City.

Musker: Yeah, we were promoting this movie in Mexico City as the election returns were coming in and we were in a customs line, ironically enough. But we weren’t sure if we would get back in the country after the election. But yeah, I don’t know. This movie may play differently now than it would have a week ago, possibly, in terms of it is a female empowerment story. And if Hillary had gotten elected, it seemed like it would play into the story. But now that she didn’t, it’s like, well, does that only happen in the movies?

Clements: I do feel it’s a good thing that the movie shows Moana leading her people to a bright future, and that’s hopeful.

My thought was it becomes more important.

Musker: I think in a way, it does. I agree with you. It’s a movie that celebrates diversity and it’s a story of female empowerment and it ends on a hopeful note and all those things. So I think maybe, for some people at least, it could be a bit of a tonic for current events.

It’s interesting Moana has no real villain.

Musker: Yeah, that’s true. That’s kind of just the way the story developed. I think it never really did have a traditional villain. A lot of our movies do have some very sort of traditional villains and we’ve had a lot of fun with those villains. It’s actually five years now since we started this movie and we sort of started with a very rough storyline based on mythology from the Pacific Islands – and then the story really changed a lot. The earlier version, it always had Maui in it, but Moana came afterwards: this young girl who wants to be on the water, voyaging on the water. But it’s always kind of had that basic idea of kind of a True Grit type story, without a romance and with no traditional villain, really.

I never thought I’d hear The Rock sing in a movie.

Musker: Yeah. Well, actually, Lin-Manuel Miranda was a fan of The Rock in his wrestling days. So even when he was going to write this song for him, he knew some of the things that he had done when he was wrestling – where he’d pull out a guitar and kind of trash the city he was in, or whatever it was. So I think he actually had a familiarity with Dwayne’s earlier career that wasn’t acquired.

Clements: And Lin, of course he was doing Hamilton at the time. This was a day off from Hamilton. And I think he yelled so much during the wrestling match he lost his voice and he had to do Hamilton.

Musker: Yeah, he was very hoarse and he said, “Yeah, I lost my voice at WrestleMania. Dwayne Johnson is actually a good singer. He sings in not a huge range, but he can carry a tune and that is all him in the movie.”

Clements: And Lin wrote it for Dwayne. He tailored it specifically for Dwayne, just as kind of a celebration of The Rock.

Speaking of Lin-Manuel Miranda, you guys got a nice “get” for a songwriter…

Clements: Well, we knew him before Hamilton.

Musker: He had been working on Hamilton, but we had never heard of it. We just knew “In the Heights.”

Clements: He did just very briefly mention this thing he was working on for public theater, that was kind of a rap version of the story of Alexander Hamilton. And we just kind of stared and smiled and thought, eh, that’s um…

Musker: “When you’re done with that in two weeks, then you’ll get serious about this.”

You two have a history of making movies with diversity in them. Before Moana, there was Aladdin and The Princes and the Frog. Was that by design or did it just work out that way?

Musker: I don’t think it’s by design, no.

Clements: It wasn’t by design. I mean, I’m very happy about it, but it was not calculated in any way. Even with Princess and the Frog, it was actually a progression out of the idea of setting the story in New Orleans, which almost sort of came before the idea that the heroine might be African American. And it just seemed to sort of fit. So a lot of things seem like they came more from just the story, the ideas of the story.

Musker: When we did Aladdin, diversity wasn’t a word you heard. It’s a word of the moment. But even when we started this movie five years ago, the word diversity was less in the air than it is now. But these are conceived over many years.

Clements: That’s the thing about animated films, they take so long to do, you can’t calculate…

Musker: Capture something of the moment, the moment is going to be five years from now.

That’s a good point about Aladdin. When it came out people wanted to see it because it was fun.

Musker: Yeah, the characters and the entertainment and the fun.

But looking back on it it’s like, oh, that’s remarkable.

Musker: I would say it has been fun seeing all the social media stuff. You know, the movie isn’t out yet and there’s all these cosplayers. And I have seen comments like, “Wow, there’s a princess that looks like me and I’m so excited.” And, “I don’t have to change the way I look to dress up like this princess and I can celebrate who I am.” I’m pleased when I read those things.

This is your first CGI animated movie. How does that work as directors? Because part of me thinks it would be extremely different and part of me thinks it would be similar.

Clements: You’re right on both those. Some of it is very much the same. Certainly the story, scripting, storyboarding, recording voices – that’s pretty much exactly the same, but the actual production process is actually quite different. I think maybe even more different than we realized. Some of the basic things are it’s a much slower start with a CG film because everything has to be built. All the characters, they have to be designed and modeled and rigged, and the environments all have to be built in three dimensions. Then once everything is built, and you have all of these assets, the actual production process can move very quickly. I mean, more quickly than a hand-drawn film and kind of almost surprisingly.

The fun thing about this, too, is we got to work with a lot of the young artists and a lot of these younger men and women in their 20s and 30s would actually have seen The Little Mermaid when they were eight, or five, or whatever, and so it was kind of a novelty for them to work with us when we had sort of helped. In some cases, they had an interest in animation because they had seen The Little Mermaid as kids.

Musker: Yeah, they were kind of inspired in their youth, as we were with Disney.

Clements: Yeah, the Disney features.

Musker: But yeah, we’re old guys – quite a bit. But the majority of the staff is pretty young, very young, eager, excited people. It was fun.

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