For 'Moana' Actress Auli'i Cravalho, Demigod Maui Was The Stuff Of Bedtime Stories Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho says she grew up hearing tales of Maui, the Polynesian demigod who could pull up islands with his magical fishhook. Now she stars alongside him in a new Disney movie.
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'Moana' Actress Grew Up With The Polynesian Myth That Inspired The Movie

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'Moana' Actress Grew Up With The Polynesian Myth That Inspired The Movie

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Disney's latest movie, Moana, tells the story of a young girl living on an island in the South Pacific. She is the daughter of the chief, which means she's supposed to lead her people and stay on the island. But she finds herself drawn to the sea. When coconuts start rotting and fish start dying, she sets out to save herself by finding a demigod named Maui. Auli'i Cravalho plays Moana, and she is with us in the studio. Welcome.

AULI'I CRAVALHO: Hey. Thank you so much for having me.

MCEVERS: And John Musker is one of the directors of the film, and he's here, too. Welcome to you.

JOHN MUSKER: Yes, thank you, Kelly.

MCEVERS: So Auli'i, the character Moana is a teenager like you. She's strong willed, she's adventurous of course. And she stands up to this demigod that she goes looking for and finds.

CRAVALHO: (Laughter).

MCEVERS: His name is Maui. He's played by Dwayne The Rock Johnson. I want to just hear an exchange between the two of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOANA")

CRAVALHO: (As Moana) Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana of...

DWAYNE JOHNSON: (As Maui) Hero of men.

CRAVALHO: (As Moana) What?

JOHNSON: (As Maui) It's actually Maui, shapeshifter demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted - from the top - hero of men - go.

MCEVERS: She of course then proceeds to hit him with a paddle. Is that something you liked about her - is that she is, you know...

CRAVALHO: Oh, absolutely.

MCEVERS: ...Strong?

CRAVALHO: Yes, Moana is definitely the heroine of her own story. And I absolutely love my character. She's strong, determined, kind and really selfless for her people of whom she goes across the ocean to save.

MCEVERS: And John, you've worked on a lot of Disney films that kids have grown up with - I mean "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" "Hercules," more recently "The Princess And The Frog." Why did you want to do a character from the South Pacific?

MUSKER: Five years ago, my partner and I, Ron Clements, who is not here at the moment - but we write and direct as a team. We did all those films together. And we were looking for a new film. And I had always been intrigued by the Pacific Islands, having read novels by people like, you know, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. These of course are Westerner's points of view of the Pacific Islands, but it led me to read Polynesian mythology, which I had never read.

And I discovered a rich vein of storytelling. It was in particular this character of Maui, this demigod. He was known throughout the Pacific Islands, and he was a shapeshifter. He had a mighty magical fish hook with which he could pull up Islands.

MCEVERS: Right.

MUSKER: And he had tattoos, and I was like, this figure is made - he's ripe for animation. So we were forced, forced, I tell you, to go to Tahiti and to Fiji and to Samoa and to...

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

CRAVALHO: You poor thing.

MUSKER: ...Moorea and to...

MCEVERS: This was a terrible year.

MUSKER: Stop me. It was a terribly tough job, but we took it on.

MCEVERS: When I first watch the film, you know, I see this character, this Maui.

MUSKER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: And now I know, you know, this isn't something that we made up Disney style.

MUSKER: No.

MCEVERS: I mean this is a real legend to many people. And the way we're introduced to him is through a song. I want to listen to a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOANA")

JOHNSON: (Singing) What has two thumbs that hold up the sky when you were waddling yea high - this guy. When the nights got cold, who stole you fire from down below? (Laughter) You're looking at him, yo. Oh...

MCEVERS: It's so funny. He's like, I did all this stuff for you; you're welcome, which is of course, like, a 2016 version of, like, a demigod telling you his story. Auli'i, you're Hawaiian. Did you grow up knowing about Maui?

CRAVALHO: Yes, absolutely. I grew up with his mythology and those stories of him literally pulling islands out of the sea and slowing down the sun. Those were my bedtime stories. And it was really interesting being able to see those and to hear those in this story because I mean I know them, but the fact that the directors and the story team took that time to really find something true to my culture like that - that was incredible to me.

MCEVERS: And so, yeah, tell us, like - John, tell us what story you wanted to tell here, not just the story of these two characters. But, like...

MUSKER: Right.

MCEVERS: ...What was the narrative you wanted to tell?

MUSKER: Well, there's various things. One of the themes of the movie is identity. It's about really finding out who you are. And there is no romance in this movie, really. It's a coming-of-age story, a hero's journey for this young girl. And in a way, she's kind of finding that within herself, and she's sort of reawakening the culture.

MCEVERS: Right, and so it's this culture that's been sort of on the island for a long time, but they used to be a voyaging culture.

MUSKER: They used to be a voyaging society, which is based on the real fact. For thousands of years, there were great voyages. And then there's a thousand-year pause where they didn't voyage. And so we thought we created this kind of fictional reason, this sort of fantasy reason why they stopped and then why they started up again.

MCEVERS: Was there a danger in, you know, combining too many island cultures into one?

MUSKER: Oh...

MCEVERS: I mean there's been a little criticism of that.

MUSKER: Well, we had an oceanic story choice. When we went to the islands, we met a great deal of anthropologists and linguists and choreographers and cultural ambassadors. And their advice to us was actually, it's best that you don't fix it to a certain place. It isn't exactly Salmo. It isn't exactly New Zealand. It isn't exactly Tahiti.

That will give you more license to kind of combine these things. And it's sort of pan-Pacific in a way. It really sort of marries these different cultures. So we deliberately wanted to be kind of inclusive of the Pacific.

MCEVERS: Yeah, I mean - but I guess I want to ask, though, you know, is it dangerous sometimes to romanticize the sort of island way of life, you know, the perfect paradise from a time...

MUSKER: Although, actually, I would...

MCEVERS: ...Long ago.

MUSKER: I would disagree with you a little bit on that that it really - it isn't a perfect paradise. I mean there's trouble in paradise in our movie. There's an issue. There's an imbalance between man and nature at the start of the film, and really it deals with sustainability. And you've got to give back. And that's a sub-message of the movie.

We heard a phrase when we were in the South Pacific. You don't own the land; the land owns you. And I think, you know, we sort of took that to heart. So I think I don't agree with your premise, OK?

MCEVERS: That's OK. The influence of family is a really central theme in the film. Moana's parents have these expectations of her. Her grandmother of course is really close to her, plays this really big role in her life. Moana goes to her for advice. We're going to listen to a clip of that really quick, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOANA")

CRAVALHO: (As Moana) Why are you acting weird?

RACHEL HOUSE: (As Gramma Tala) I'm the village crazy lady. That's my job.

CRAVALHO: (As Moana) Is there something you want to tell me? Just tell me. Is there something you want to tell me?

HOUSE: (As Gramma Tala) Is there something you want to hear?

MCEVERS: And you mentioned this before, but these are characters who don't have love interests.

CRAVALHO: Correct.

MUSKER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: Moana is on her own quest. Maui is on his quest. And it feels like it's sending a different message about getting love from places that you don't expect them. Is that fair?

CRAVALHO: I think that's really important. And the main theme of "Moana" is the journey that she goes on. And I think that's something that everyone can relate to - perhaps not journeying a hundred miles across the open ocean but the journey of finding herself. And Maui goes on the journey just as Moana does, and they both learn from each other, and they both grow in a wonderful way.

MCEVERS: You know, Moana's not, like, your typical Disney character. She's a Polynesian young woman, and she's very strong and powerful. Why do you think it's important for people to see a character like that?

CRAVALHO: I think Disney films are reflective of their times. And I think in this day and age especially, we need more heroes and heroines. And we need more empowered young people who will journey out to, yes, figure out who they are but also just journey because that's what they want to do. And yes, she's rocking a beautiful tan. Her curly hair blowing in the wind.

(LAUGHTER)

CRAVALHO: And her athletic build makes her just fully ready to kick some butt. I think it's absolutely amazing. And she's a character that even I look up to as I'm going to be continuing in my junior year onto senior year. And I hope that she inspires others as she's inspired me.

MCEVERS: That's Auli'i Cravalho, who plays Moana, and John Musker, who directed the film with Ron Clements. Thanks to both of you for coming in.

MCEVERS: Oh, thank you so much, Kelly.

MUSKER: Thanks so much.

MCEVERS: I really appreciate it.

MUSKER: Yeah, thank you, Kelly. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOANA")

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: The Disney film "Moana" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOANA")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: And a quick note - yesterday when I was talking to actor Carrie Fisher, I said the 1975 movie "Shampoo" was written and directed by Warren Beatty. Warren Beatty was the star, and he did co-write the film with Robert Towne, but it was directed by Hal Ashby.

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