Disney animation supervisor Malcon Pierce spins magic once more with the soon-to-be released animated film “Moana.” Pierce’s credits include “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen” and most recently, “Zootopia.”
Disney animations never have it easy. They have been accused of ethnic stereotyping and of having a white-centric worldview. But when they attempt to embrace other cultures, the studio is told off for appropriation. The latest entry, “Moana,” has garnered credit to Disney for even wading into these hazardous waters. This sea-faring adventure appears to take great pains to get it right, from the textile designs to the dance movements, the coconut-based crafts to the lovingly rendered turquoise seas. The organization know as The Oceanic Trust, guided the direction and creation of “Moana” to insure the historical accuracy of Moana.
But there are other traditions Disney animations must respect. As one character says of our heroine: “You’re in a dress and you’ve got an animal sidekick: you’re a princess.” Despite Moana’s denials, this is a Disney princess movie, which means it has certain royal obligations to fulfill: a role-model heroine, a magical quest, a wholesome message, a merchandisable animal sidekick (in this case, a supremely dumb chicken) and musical numbers that will pass the playground test. (Some of them do: Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda had a hand in the songwriting and the earwormy How Far I’ll Go is this year’s Let It Go).
During my interview with Pierce, he was quick to point out that unlike most Disney storylines, “Moana” is character-driven not plot-driven. Audience members will experience a depth and dimension to the characters that has rarely been seen.
The course of the story is set by a prologue telling the legend of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole the goddess’s fertility-giving heart-stone, but then lost the magical fishhook that enabled him to transform into other animals. So when teenage Moana (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) sees her contented pre-industrial village falling into ecological chaos, she knows what she must do. Her huge, overprotective father (who is the size of a large fridge), forbids anyone to sail beyond the reef, especially his daughter. But her more free-spirited grandma reveals to Moana her seafaring heritage, and beseeches her to ignore dad, listen to her inner voice and hit the high seas, preferably with an animal sidekick.
It was interesting to find out that many drastic character changes took place during production. The endearing sidekick rooster was originally very smart and somewhat mean. He was almost eliminated from the movie, but instead was reinvented as a goofy stupid rooster with a much larger part in the story than originally envisioned. A wise old talking palm tree was nixed early on, and the ocean itself was given human characteristics.
The story takes some agreeably bizarre turns. There’s a flotilla of coconut-clad little pirate creatures who seem like they’ve come out of “Mad Max.” Pierce was keen to point out that these little cute/horrific characters were fantastic fun to create, and that quite a few Easter eggs were hidden in their scenes.
This will be Disney’s 56th full length animated feature. Pierce very open-heartedly expressed the joy and sense of family that working for Disney has brought into his life. With over 90 animators’ visions and concepts to coordinate, Pierce said, “Bringing ‘Moana’ to life was a dream job full of creative energy and enthusiasm.”
“Moana” sails into theaters November 23rd