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When it comes to films from Walt Disney Animation, you can be sure the finished products that arrive on the big screen probably bear very little similarity to the original concept that got the movie going in the first place. A major part of the process at the studio is A) building up an idea/story, B) tearing it all down, and C) repeating steps A and B multiple times until what they have is perfect and ready to be fully animated. Moana is no exception to this, and in fact was originally a project that was going to be titled Mighty Maui - centering on the character in the feature played by Dwayne Johnson. And the only reason it changed was because of an eye-opening research trip that directors John Musker and Ron Clements went on early in development.
I learned about this interesting origin when I had the pleasure of sitting down with the two directors at the Moana Los Angeles press day earlier this month. During the interview, I asked about the project's origins and how it changed through the course of production, and the filmmakers revealed that they originally set out to make a completely different movie. Said Clements,
There was the first version of the story, before we went to the islands and that was John's idea, I think, and it was inspired just by wanting to do a film in that part of the world, which he didn't know that much about, and I didn't know that much about. He read a lot of the mythology and Maui really comes out of that as this wonderful character. He's a demi-god, a shape-shifter and with this magical fishing hook he could pull up islands. So our very first version of the story, our sort of title for it was Mighty Maui, and it was a Maui-centric story, based on two or three Maui myths that we just kind of mashed together.
Having previously worked together on modern Disney classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Ron Clements and John Musker pitched the idea to executive producer John Lasseter. And while he liked the idea from the start, he felt that it was important that the two filmmakers take a journey to some Pacific Island locations and really figure out what the history and mythology was all about. This wound up totally shaking up their perspective on Mighty Maui, and it wound up leading them to delete just about everything they had developed. Clements explained,
We kind of maybe had a more stereotypical view, and really didn't know that much - and our views changed dramatically coming out of that trip. We learned so much about navigation and the history of navigation, which was not a part of the story. People's connection to the ocean... they talked about the ocean like it was alive, which was not a part of the story. The respect for nature and the connection to the past... And so, after that trip, when we came back, we kind of threw out that first version of the story.
After the destruction of what was Mighty Maui, Ron Clements and John Musker instead started developing a story where Maui was a side character to a young female lead. The story would focus on the history of navigation that is so incredibly important to the Oceanic region, and would see them teaming up to battle forces together on the high seas. It started to come together as the Moana movie that is coming to theaters.
As John Musker pointed out to me, however, just because they had figured out that Moana should be the lead doesn't mean that they still weren't going through the whole process of building up and breaking down ideas. They still had to figure out exactly what the heroine would be doing with Maui on the ocean, and they had multiple ideas on where to do with that. Said Musker,
In the earliest drafts she actually was going on a different mission. Her father went out to sea and got lost and she had to go save him. That went away, and these various other elements that were there and came and went.
You'll be able to see the finished cut of Moana in theaters on Wednesday, November 23rd, and be sure to stay tuned for more from my interview with directors Ron Clements and John Musker!