To say that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is “busy” is an understatement. The former athlete’s career has transcended his days as a WWE wrestler. Now Johnson is a global superstar who’s name is synonymous with box office success having starred in such action films as “Hercules”, “Central Intelligence” as well as the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
What makes Johnson’s latest project different from his previous endeavors is the fact that he’s paying homage to his Samoan culture in the new animated Disney film “Moana”. In the movie, Johnson plays a demigod name Maui who “literally” steals the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti which as a result renders him powerless and brings about a famine on Moana’s island.
It’s Moana’s (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) mission to find Maui and return the heart to Te Fiti to restore prosperity to her island. While the plot may sound mushy like a stereotypical Disney movie, the project has been a labor of love for directors Ron Clements and John Musker over the past six years. The pair ventured across several Polynesian islands to learn about the culture and ensure historical accuracy. More than just a Disney movie for little girls, the film has empowering life lessons which encourages the audience to be fearless, take risks and be the hero of your story.
During a recent press conference for “Moana” Johnson shared the historical significance of the film and the directorial team gave insight on how “Moana” went from vision to fruition and became a box office win when it opened Thanksgiving weekend.
On how the concept for the film came about:
John Musker: I was intrigued by that part of the world. I had never been to French Polynesia, Samoa or Tahiti but I had read books and seen sculptures and paintings that were so rich and visual. I thought it would be intriguing to set a film there. That led me to begin reading Polynesian mythology. I read about the character Maui who’s a big cultural figure in the Pacific islands. The legend was that Maui was a shape shifter, he could transform into animals, he had a magic fish hook and he could pull islands out of the sea; he was covered in tattoos which told all of these stories—there were all of these visual elements and I thought it was ripe for animation, so I showed the storied to Ron.
Ron Clements: As a directorial team we pitched the idea to Disney. During a three week trip on these islands we spent time with educators, anthropologists, navigators and sailors, we talked to people about what it was like to live on an island your whole life and how it affects your perspective of the world. We learned about the great pride they take in being the greatest navigators the world had ever seen and ideas about their connections to their ancestors and their personification of the ocean. That trip led to the story of Moana which means “ocean” in many of the Polynesian languages.
How Dwayne Johnson was cast as Maui:
JM: We knew that Dwayne was part Samoan and very connected to his heritage there. His mother’s Samoan and his father is African American. For all of the voices in the movie, we were hoping to cast people from the islands to give it more authenticity. Dwayne was perfect for the character in so many ways. We never auditioned anyone for the role. We just brought him in, showed him the drawings, pitched him the story, played some of the music and he loved it and said, ‘I’m in’ because he really wanted to celebrate his heritage. Our writer, Jerry Bush worked with Dwayne in the recording studio and wrote to his voice.
On adding the film to his busy slate and the similarities between he and his character:
Dwayne Johnson: It was an opportunity to showcase a culture that’s very important to me. I’m proud to be part of something that’s truly historic and I’m not saying that because I’m in the film! With Disney putting out “Moana” they’re showcasing the Pacific islands for the very first time on screen in this unique way.
As a kid, I grew up knowing different stories of the great charismatic larger than life demigod, Maui. He’s very determined, incredibly charismatic and has a tremendous voice. When he sings, he commands the room—and I have a little bit of that. Just between us, Maui is incredibly good looking; I’ve also got a little bit of that.
The part of the film that most resonated with him:
DJ: When Maui becomes vulnerable and shares the truth of what happened to him and what he still struggles with, I really appreciated that. It’s one thing when you’re performing the lines in the studio but it’s another thing to watch it materialize on screen and that was an element that struck a chord with me because we all have something that we struggle with and we hope to get better, so the fact that Maui had room for growth, I appreciated that.
On the film’s take away:
DJ: I hope that the audience not only leaves with a better understanding of our culture, tradition, pride, love, determination and our spirit, but also the power and importance of family. You can go out and conquer the world but always give back and acknowledge where you come from.