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The Teen Star Of Moana Ushers In A New Era For Disney Heroines

There’s a moment in Moana when the demigod Maui condescendingly refers to the village chief’s teen daughter, Moana, as “princess.” But Moana’s no princess, and she’s quick to correct Maui’s patronizing mistake.

Moana is a Disney Heroine™, to be clear. She embraces many of the character traits we’ve come to associate with princesses of the Disney Renaissance era. She’s bold, fearless, selfless, and ambitious—but without any of the expectations. (The only thing she has in common with Snow White is the abundance of animal sidekicks.) In fact, Moana isn’t a fairy tale; it’s a coming-of-age tale.

From legendary directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), the story follows a girl who’s torn between leading her people and exploring the sea that calls to her. When a curse befalls her island, Moana’s chosen by the ocean to set sail, find the island’s precious gem stolen by the legendary demigod Maui (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), and return it to its rightful place.

Like the 16-year-old character she voices, 16-year-old newcomer Auli’i Cravalho is a Polynesian girl from an island—the small town of Kohala, Hawaii—who stands out in a crowd. Effervescent and exuberant, it was hard for me to tell where Moana ended and Cravalho began when I caught up with the young star. Cravalho opened up to us about being cast as a Disney heroine, what Moana means for the people back home, and how Moana breaks new ground for the beloved animation studio.

The casting process for this was insane. Last year, before it was announced that you were Moana, directors Ron Clements and John Musker told me that over 400 girls, across the world, auditioned for the part. What was that process like for you?

Auli’i Cravalho: I initially didn’t try out for it because I was in my freshman year of high school, which was confusing as it was, so I decided to focus on schooling. And my friends and I put together an a cappella mash-up because we were hoping to become the entertainment at a nonprofit event. We had all these really great harmonies and beatboxing—but we didn’t get in. But the woman who was going through those auditions was also the casting director for Disney, and she saw our audition and contacted my mom and I. She asked if I wanted to try out for Moana, and thank god I said yes! I auditioned once in Hawaii—a video audition—and it was the first time I had ever done anything like that. Then I got flown out to Los Angeles over a weekend because…

Because high school.

Yes! Because school. By the third callback, that’s when they told me that I had gotten the part.

You must have been so psyched.

Absolutely. I was a freshman in high school, and I was told that I was going to be Moana! It was the best day of my life.

Every time I read an interview with Ron or John or Dwayne, they always mention how you are Moana, how you embody that character. Do you feel that connection with her?

Definitely. I have grown up on an island, just like Moana. I am very deeply rooted to my culture. I went to an all-Hawaiian school, and I speak Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, our language. I just really appreciate everything our beautiful Polynesian culture has to offer. It’s funny because no one really calls me Auli’i anymore; my name is Moana. My friends call me Moana. My teachers all call me Moana. I do feel like I am her at times. I’m also very clumsy on land, so the ocean is my friend.

There’s been a lot said about how Moana doesn’t have a love interest in this film, but I kind of feel like she does; her true love is the ocean.

Yes! I think the major thing is that you don’t need anyone to help you find yourself. That’s all you. But many people will help you along that journey: Maui helps Moana, as well as the ocean. It’s a big part of her.

I have a confession to make: The first time I saw a clip from the film at D23, which then became the international trailer, of Baby Moana meeting the ocean for the first time, I cried.

That was the first clip I had actually seen! The relationship between Moana and the ocean is so beautiful, and you could see it just from that small clip. I saw it when it was still in layout, and I bawled my eyes out.

Ron and John spent years researching this film to get the story just right.

It’s been five years in the making. They’ve taken their time bringing the story to life. They’re still getting information from cultural advisers all across the South Pacific. It’s being done right. This is a story that’s inspired by Polynesian culture, and I’m Hawaiian, so it just makes me feel good to see something like that. I’m excited for people to meet Moana and see this wonderful heroine on-screen, but mostly, I’m excited to show people my culture.

We haven’t heard much of the music from Moana. Does she have that typical Disney “I Want” song, where she’s longing for something more? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before the release of “How Far I’ll Go.”]

Yes! When I recorded that, I was really scared because I had never been in a recording booth. So the first time I was there, I had to turn down the lights because I didn’t want to have to act. I didn’t want to think about how my face was going to look. That was one of the most special songs.

Disney’s been pretty clear about the fact that Moana is not a princess—she’s a heroine. This is more of an adventure than a fairy tale, right? Moana rolls up her sleeves, pulls up her hair, and gets her hands dirty.

Absolutely. That’s who the character is. She’s beautiful and empowered and empowering to everyone else. It’s such a wonderful time to bring in heroines. Everyone should be the heroine of her own story. I love it. The directors use a term—and I can only say “bad-butt”—but you can understand what I’m trying to say. That’s totally who her character is. She’s wonderful. She’s spunky. But at the same time, I think she’s really relatable. Yes, this movie is about a journey across hundreds of miles of ocean, but it’s also an emotional journey. She lives on an island. She doesn’t really want to leave, and yet she has a longing and a desire to go elsewhere. She has this tug and pull in her heart. I’m 15, and I can relate to that so much.

Oftentimes in the animation process, the animators will pick up some of your mannerisms and use them to animate the character. Do you see any of your mannerisms in Moana?

Moana was actually fully developed as a character before I stepped in, but there are certain things I see. She does touch her hair a lot, and at some point, she puts her hair up. Her hair is actually a really big part of the character, and they actually had to create a whole new program for Moana’s hair, as well as the ocean, because in Hawaii, and in the way I wear my hair, it’s down and it’s long and flowing. So it was a totally new thing for them.

There’s that moment in the trailer where she does put her hair up, and I feel like that’s one of the first times I’ve seen a Disney heroine actually put her hair up on-screen.

She’s gotta get down to business!

She’s kind of like Mulan in that way.

I’ve never had cable, so I didn’t watch a lot of TV, but I’ve had VHS tapes and a VCR, and my favorite Disney movie is Mulan. Even at a young age, she broke that gender norm—and she did it full speed ahead. I loved that. She also brought a lot of honor to her family, and that was always something I wanted to do, no matter where I went. I wanted to carry my culture with me, the way that Mulan did. I was like, “Girl, you go. You fight those Huns.”

Do you feel like Moana is going to break a lot of ground in terms of what a Disney heroine can be and what a Disney story can be?

I love that she’s being described as a Disney heroine, instead of a Disney character or Disney princess. She’s a Disney heroine, which means she’s the hero of her own story. That’s so wonderful. This is a new era of heroes and heroines.

Songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda, actors Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson at the world premiere of Disney’’s Moana.

Speaking of heroes, did you ever record with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?

[sighs] No.

It would have been too distracting.

For him, I suppose.

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