‘She’s bold, tenacious, she’s the heroine of her own story:’ Auli’i Cravalho on playing Disney’s Moana

Moana, Disney’s new animated film centred on a feisty young Pacific Islander, arrives at a time when diversity and culturally sensitive casting are hot-button topics in Hollywood.

The company’s latest big-budget feature stars Auli’i Cravalho as the title character, a strong and adventurous young woman who enlists the help of a demigod named Maui — portrayed by Hollywood superstar Dwayne Johnson — to embark on an epic mission to save her people.

In the works for several years, the ambitious project stands out on several fronts. 

Firstly, it’s a mainstream movie led by lead actors actually from the culture being depicted. Moana is set in the Pacific Islands and Cravalho is native Hawaiian, while Johnson is partially of Samoan heritage. Other cast members are also of Polynesian descent.

‘We want it to be done right:’ Auli’i Cravalho on the Polynesian culture depicted in Moana1:39

“Before I was cast into this film and when I first heard about it, I was a little wary. I think whenever we hear about a film inspired by our culture, we want it to be done right… we’re protective of it,” Cravalho told CBC News on Monday, during the Toronto stop of the film’s global promotional tour.

“I can honestly say I’m so proud of this film.”

Moana is also Disney’s first major attempt at depicting Polynesian characters and folklore, as well as the first so-called “Disney princess” tale that doesn’t include a romantic storyline.

“Moana is an incredible heroine. She’s strong…She’s got her two feet firmly planted. She’s definitely grounded,” Cravalho said of the athletic character, whom she described as “a wonderful role model.” 

‘She’s the heroine of her own story’

One might call it fate that the teenaged Cravalho landed the monumental lead role.

It’s the first significant professional gig for the high-school glee club member, who didn’t even formally audition for the film. Instead, she was discovered at a tryout for a local event by a talent agent who also happened to be casting Moana for Disney. The character had even been fully designed before Cravalho was chosen. 

“The fact that she looks like me, she shares my quirks and [now] she also has my voice — it’s a little weird. But I love it all the same,” the teen performer said.

“She’s an amazing character. She’s bold, tenacious, she’s the heroine of her own story. And she inspires me so I know she’ll inspire others as well.”

Aside from Moana‘s story and the cast, the creative team — led by co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker — also aim for authenticity with the movie’s music.

The soundtrack and score were created by Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda and composer Mark Mancina in collaboration with Samoan musician Opetaia Foa’i. The tactic brought Mancina success with an earlier Disney effort: teaming up with South African composer Lebo M. to arrange and produce music for The Lion King.

The movie even has a ​Canadian tie-in: Toronto-area singer Alessia Cara performs a version of the song How Far I’ll Go for the soundtrack and an official music video.

Now is the perfect time for a strong, Polynesian Disney heroine, according to Cravalho, who celebrates her 16th birthday on Tuesday.

“I think Disney films are reflective of their times. And in this day and age, especially, we need more heroes and heroines…with their own story,” she said.

Moana opens in theatres Wednesday. 

‘He’s literally a demigod:’ Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho on working with Dwayne Johnson0:46

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