The Heart of Moana is Auli’i Cravalho

By  · Published on November 28th, 2016

Can’t wait to see how far she’ll go.

Surprising few, Disney’s Moana easily won the Thanksgiving box office. There were plenty of media stories leading up to its debut, like how Dwayne Johnson would be appearing in a Disney animated feature. Would Moana be able to live up to the lofty expectations of Disney’s last princess film, Frozen? How about the music with Hamilton creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, providing the music for the film? There was plenty of interest on the film, but perhaps the biggest wildcard of the whole production was Auli’i Cravalho. Her vocal performance was significant in whether or not Moana would be successful. Thankfully, she was up to the task.

When Auli’i Cravalho first heard about auditions for Disney’s first Polynesian princess, she didn’t believe she had what was needed. Fate would have it that a casting director in Oahu discovered her at a charity competition. Disney has said on record that she was the last person to test for the role of Moana. They auditioned hundreds of young women throughout the Pacific Islands, but it seems they were just waiting for Cravalho to audition.

Auli’i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian, has become quite the celebrity. The 16-year old high school sophomore, always had a passion for singing and dancing, but never expected to get to this point. She never even had formal vocal training before accepting the part, only in her school and church choir. That’s extremely impressive considering the way she belts out the Lin-Manuel penned songs. Excitement for Moana and Cravalho’s role in it has taken a fever pitch in Hawaii. It is impossible to get tickets to the film.

Outside of Cravalho getting a once in a lifetime chance to star in a Disney animated feature, the character of Moana is a win for representation in Hollywood. Moana is a 16-year-old girl who goes on an adventure to find the answers about her heritage, as well as, save her island and her people. There’s never a moment in the film where her character is thought of as inferior to Johnson’s Maui, who is an all-powerful demigod. The closest thing to a love interest comes from her love of adventure. In a fourth-wall breaking moment she refuses to be called a princess. This is a character for the new generation of Disney fans. When asked how she feels about playing a strong character like Moana, Cravalho responded:

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, … her curly hair blowing in the wind 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 on to senior year [of high school]. And I hope that she inspires others as she’s inspired me.

Disney paid a lot of attention to getting Polynesian culture correct. They spent five years researching the region making sure the story, representation, and music was authentic. While there were some early arguments about Maui’s depiction in Moana, Disney made significant strides to get this movie right. Opetaia Foa’i, who is the singer and songwriter of Te Vaka, was brought in to work with Lin-Manuel. Having someone associated with original contemporary Pacific music, certainly helps capture the feeling of that region.

The movie also successfully drives home the Polynesian tradition of exploration. With the drums and chanting heard in full bloom, the song “We Know the Way” sets the fever toward navigating the seas. Moana is forever drawn toward exploration even if her father discourages her. This tradition is extremely important to the region and although that it is known by its tropical beaches and being a tourist spot, to truly get an understanding of the culture you have to do a lot more. Cravalho, when speaking with The New York Times, said “If I’m being completely honest, I have no idea. I know my culture, the deeper elements, but I don’t know where anyone could do that in just a trip. It isn’t something you just stop by and see.”

Thank goodness Auli’i Cravalho tried out for Moana. She brings a vibrant, young energy to the film that the film feeds on. Just like Moana is just starting out on the adventure of her life, Cravalho could easily relate to that feeling. She also brings with her the responsibility of representing the Polynesian community and she succeeds phenomenally. There might have been interest in a lot of different parts of Moana’s production; now hopefully Cravalho will get the interest she has earned.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.