Disney Gives First Look at Pacific Animation Adventure 'Moana' at Annecy Film Festival

Before a packed and rowdy house at Annecy’s spacious Bonlieu theater, Walt Disney Animation Studios previewed the first scenes of its upcoming oceanic epic, Moana, which stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and is slated for release in late November.

Speaking about the four-year adventure that has taken them from a fact-finding tour of the Pacific islands to a feature that has involved nearly 1,000 artists, musicians and technicians, directors Ron Clements and John Musker commented footage that wowed an audience familiar with the team behind such modern Disney classics as ‘Aladdin’ and ‘The Little Mermaid.’

The film tells the story of the teenage girl Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) – pronounced ‘Mo-Anna,’ which means ‘ocean’ in local dialect – living in the South Pacific some 2,000 years ago, at a time when her people, who once were great navigators, have stopped sailing for good. Determined to push past all boundaries, she sets out to find the demi-god Maui (Johnson). Together they will try to undo the curse that has kept their civilization landlocked for so long.

Sequences screened at Annecy, some of which were nearly complete and others at storyboard or early animation stages, included an opening that explains the myth behind Moana’s predicament and a scene where she uncovers the secret of her tribe. Another beautifully rendered sequence shows an infant Moana stepping into the sea for the first time, with the Disney team doing wonders to make the ocean a character in and of itself. (Water has always been one of the toughest things to animate, and its clear that Clements and Musker went, um, overboard to make the Pacific come alive.)

Photo Credit: Disney

Photo Credit: Disney

An action scene involving a Minion-like tribe of coconut pirates was described by the filmmakers as “Disney meets Fury Road,” while a preview of one of several musical numbers underscored a work that will most likely appeal to the Mouse House’s key 10-and-under demographic—although the fact that Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda is contributing to the score may broaden the movie’s horizons to wider audiences.

Directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker unveiled 19 minutes of their upcoming 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 Art Goldberg, responsible for the genie in “Aladdin.”

Slated for release just before Thanksgiving, Moana will surely be Disney Animation’s biggest bet for the upcoming holiday season.

The presentation was preceded by a hilarious short, Inner Workings, which is sort of like Inside Out told from the perspective of the body’s vital organs. Its talented young director, Leo Matsuda, received ecstatic applause and will likely be heard from again.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter

Banner Photo Credit: Disney