Thursday 14 December 2017

New tricks from these Disney golden oldies

Can two aging white Americans do justice to a Polynesian folk tale? Yes, they certainly can, writes our reviewer

Maui and Moana in Disney's newest animated film
Maui and Moana in Disney's newest animated film
Directors Ron Clements & John Musker

Anne Marie Scanlon

Meeting Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors of Disney's latest animated spectacular Moana, the story of a young Polynesian girl making a literal and figurative voyage of discovery, is like spending time with an old married couple.

The pair share similar backgrounds, both being from the mid-West, brought up Catholic and doing time as alter boys. At one point both wanted to be priests.

Now in their early sixties they've been partners on such well-known Disney films as Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog and The Little Mermaid.

Despite their similarities it becomes very obvious, very quickly, that they have different personalities. Musker is the joker and the talker rattling off statements and questions in rapid-fire succession while Clements sits beside him waiting patiently to get a word in. He occasionally shakes his head or gives a mini-eye roll.

It takes a while before I can even ask about the film as Musker is more interested in finding out where I'm from. "I'm Irish," he tells me proudly. "My grandparents came in the early part of the last century, through Ellis Island but settled in Chicago. They were from the same town, Westport, Co Mayo, but they didn't meet till they got to Chicago." Clements is sitting waiting patiently to talk about Moana. "He hates the Irish," Musker quips. "No. No, I like the Irish," Clements replies in his measured tones and then adds. "I had red hair before (he gestures to his white beard) but as far as I know I don't have any Irish family."

Musker carries on telling me about a trip to Ireland with his children when he saw "the little tumbledown stone foundation of (my grandmother's) farmhouse is still there. We got to go to the church where she was baptised."

To be honest I always sort of dread meeting film directors as, unlike actors, they are generally an unknown quantity. I could happily spend all day with these guys - they're like an older, greyer, Ant and Dec, fun and funny. Isn't co-directing a bit of an oxymoron? "Yes," Musker replies immediately, "and I'm Oxy making him...." Clements says nothing. "Are you like a married couple?" I ask. "Yes, unfortunately," Musker replies. "I've been married to my wife for 37 years now and I've been married to him for 30 years. That's kind of scary."

Musker goes on to say that there are several directing teams at Disney "but nobody has our longevity."

"It's not uncommon in animation to have directing teams but sometimes they are put together against their will," Clements says. "This marriage was self-inflicted," Musker interrupts.

The pair then have an amicable disagreement about when their union actually started but finally agree that it became official with The Little Mermaid. "I asked John if he wanted to collaborate on it," Clements says. "So he proposed to me!" Musker adds grinning while Clements gives me a long-suffering look.

Musker, like his mother, is one of eight siblings while Clements is an only child. He did not know his father growing up and his mother, possibly out of necessity, took him along to see films that were not what we would now deem 'age appropriate'. "I saw Cleopatra and The Misfits," he recalls, "I didn't know quite what to make of that. My mother loved Clark Gable and Gone with the Wind was her favourite movie of all time. She took me to that too."

Cartoons and Disney films also played a huge role in the directors' respective childhoods.

After seeing Pinocchio at the age of nine Clements decided he wanted to become an animator. He said: "It was like a huge profound experience seeing that movie. I was obsessed and I wanted to find out as much as I could about animation and how it was done. From that time, I aspired to work at Disney." Musker also wanted to become an animator but he had an ever- changing list of possible professions on his bedroom door. Apart from becoming a priest and animator, at other times he wanted to be a submarine captain and a detective.

With Moana the directors made a decision to be as accurate as possible with the culture of the South Seas and went to great lengths to ensure that what ended up on screen was not a Hollywood reinterpretation.

Before they began the project they embarked on a fact-finding mission. "About five years ago we went to the islands of Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti," Clements says. "We met people all over the islands, we talked to linguists, anthropologists, archaeologists and also fishermen, elders and chiefs. The people were so nice, so warm and helpful."

Musker jumps in adding: "We had an obligation to them, we wanted to do right by them, we thought of them as collaborators and not consultants". Clements continues "one of the elders in Tahiti said 'for years we've been swallowed by your culture, one time can you be swallowed by our culture?'''

Eventually the team of advisors and collaborators became known as the Oceanic Trust. The Trust continued to work with Disney throughout the making of the film.

One of the more obvious changes that came about as the result of the constant collaboration was to the character of Maui, a demigod. Originally the animators intended Maui to be bald but were told, as Musker explains, "he's got to have long hair, that's part of his 'manna'. Manna is your spirit, or your power, your chi, and long hair was a part of him."

As a result, Maui now has a spectacular head of hair, worthy of a shampoo advert, which prompts one of the funniest lines in the film. In tradition Maui is covered in tattoos that tell of his various deeds. In the film one tattoo develops into a 'Mini Maui' functioning as his conscience. Moana herself looks extremely like 16-year-old newcomer Auli'i Cravalho who voices the part.

The film is beautiful and there are some great set-pieces particularly with a giant jewel-encrusted crab. Like all good Disney films there are animal sidekicks, cute pig Pua and HeiHei the Rooster. Unlike many Disney animal sidekicks, they do not speak. Just as well in the case of HeiHei who is undoubtedly the thickest animal (animated or live) to appear on a screen. "That's me," Musker tells me happily, "he's the pig!" Clements shrugs and rolls his eyes.

'Moana' opens nationwide on December 2.

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