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Dance, Storytelling, and the Art of Wayfinding: Behind the Scenes of Disney's 'Moana'

To ensure that the story was being told in a respectful light, Disney formed the "Oceanic Story Trust," a collective made up of cultural experts.
Moana will be Disney's first Pacific Islander princess
Moana will be Disney's first Pacific Islander princess.Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

When directors John Musker and Ron Clements first pitched “Moana” five years ago to John Lasseter, famed animator and chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, the two knew from the very beginning that it was a story that needed to be told authentically. For three weeks, the entire “Moana” creative team would travel to the Pacific Islands (Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti) to study and research in order to further understand Polynesian culture, traditions, and the art of wayfinding.

“It wasn’t until after our trip that the character of Moana, this teenager who dreams of becoming a navigator and a voyager, grew out of that," Clements told NBC News.

Though she was not part of the initial story (the demigod Maui was about "the only thing that stayed in the story" from the original pitch, Clements noted), Moana went on to become the title character. Moana also represents another landmark for Disney, as she is one the few female characters to not have a love interest.

“We wanted her to stand, uniquely, amongst the Disney cannon of heroines," Musker told NBC News. "She really is a heroine and we don’t think of her a princess."

In order to ensure that the story was being shaped and told in a respectful and truthful light, the Disney creative team formed the "Oceanic Story Trust," a collective made up of cultural experts that include Tiana Kiufau, the choreographer for "Moana."

“There is a huge importance to perpetuate our culture through music and dance,” Kiufau told NBC News. “This is the way we tell our stories."

See NBC Asian America's behind-the-scenes look at "Moana," including interviews with Musker, Clements, Kiufau, and story artist David Derrick, in the video player above. "Moana" is scheduled to be released in theaters on Nov. 23, 2016.

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