Moana and Inner Workings at Empire Live

I uhmed and aaahed a fair bit about going to Empire magazine’s Empire Live event. There looked to be a fair few cool events lined up (Pixar shorts marathon? Yes please!), but no big draw that I simply couldn’t miss. Then – hurrah! – a preview of Moana with Q&A by producer Osnat Shurer was announced and I was sold. As a big Disney fan who’s been madly anticipating Moana for a while now, the opportunity was simply too good and gladly it didn’t disappoint.

In a packed hour of goodies, we got the full short that will precede Moana (the superb Inner Workings), some cool featurettes about the crew’s research for the film (holidays trips to the Pacific islands that inspired the film), the Q&A with the wonderful and insightful Shurer, and best of all: five extended clips from the film itself. Considering the picture’s still unfinished, it’s quite a treat to get an insight like this. Indeed, even some of the crew haven’t seen what we saw in the form we saw it today.

I’ll start as the show did: with Inner Workings, which I’d been impressed with from the preview art but which nevertheless has echoes of Pixar’s Inside Out. The link between the two films is unmistakeable, but hardly a problem. Inner Workings is very much its own film: sweet, smart and very very funny. It’s one of the most playful Disney shorts I’ve seen in a while and will make you fall in love with the bladder, the lungs, the heart, and the brain in the way you fall in love with all the great Disney characters.

That’s the core difference between Inside Out and Inner Workings. While Pixar chose to personify emotions, Inner Workings focuses on organs, playing out the tension between the fearful brain and the adventurous heart inside our hero Paul, an office worker who desires a more exciting life than the one he has at Boring Boring and Glum. To say any more would give too much away, but Inner Workings happily sits amongst recent Disney short classics Paperman and Feast, and also contains one of the best urination jokes I’ve seen in a while. That’s an important criteria win. Very important.

Next up Shurer took us through Moana, introducing us to some of the key players and showing featurettes on production and the casting of young Hawaiian newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, who plays Moana. It’s clear from this footage that Disney is very alert to the cultural sensitivites around the film. The featurettes showed how the crew worked with islanders to understand the culture and let it shape the story and characters. For example, Shurer mentioned in the Q&A that after consultation with experts, the previously-bald Maui was given hair. She also revealed that Alan Tudyk (Disney’s current John Ratzenberger good luck charm, who voices the rooster Hei Hei) is the only non-Pacific islander in the film. Quite a feat considering how many characters there seem to be.

This authenticity showed in the clips, which began (fittingly enough) with the film’s opening. An exciting and spectacular piece of work, it shows how Maui broke free from the gods and stole the heart (a precious stone) of a sacred island before being confronted with the incredibly realised lava demon we’ve seen in the trailers. It’s a wonderful opening and confirms what I’ve suspected from the clips we’ve seen so far from Moana: that this is a Princess film wrapped inside an Indiana Jones-esque adventure movie. And it looks all the better for it.

Second was a sneak peek at a scene that’s bound to become iconic. Moana looks like it shares some of The Little Mermaid‘s DNA in so much as Moana has a sense of adventure about her that her father seeks to repress. Her grandmother, however, nurtures it and in the second previee scene, she takes her granddaughter to a secret place on her home island to show her the true nature of her ancestors, who were all voyagers and explorers, just as Moana longs to be.

Cut to a fantastic musical sequence that shows these ancestors travelling across the ocean looking for land set to ‘We Know the Way’, which we’ve heard in the trailers. I’m intrigued to see how it plays in the context of the film and whether it acts as Moana’s ‘I Want’ song. It’d certainly be an interesting departure for Disney to have the ‘I Want’ song sung by someone other than the lead, but it could be quite appropriate and the song itself is undoubtedly good enough to stand among the likes of ‘Part of Your World’ and ‘For the First Time In Forever’.

The latest trailer gave us a glimpse of Moana and Maui’s first meeting and the third clip here extended that. A (not bad but slightly out of place) joke about Tweeting aside, this was a promising piece of footage. So much of Moana looks like it’ll be occupied by Moana and Maui out at sea on their own. The relationship between the two needs to be perfect, and it’s encouraging that Cravalho more than holds her own against Dwayne Johnson, who pitches Maui perfectly as Gaston with more charm and less misogny. I hope the film explores his expectorationg talents.

Clip 4 took us furthest into the film and was also the most action packed. Here we find Maui and Moana under attack by the cute-but-deadly Kamakura, who besiege out heroes on their travels. It’s a sequence full of Disney’s trademark humour, but there’s a scope and sense of adventure to it that’s beyond anything we’ve seen in even the most action-packed Disney animation. I use Indiana Jones as a reference point perhaps because I love Indy and the two share a similar exoticism, but there really is a sense of old-school adventuring to Moana that’s reminding me of the Indy series. It’s great to see Disney moving in that direction, especially in a Princess film.

Finally we saw more typical Princess territory in our introduction to baby Moana. In these scenes, she encounters the ocean and her unique relationship with it for the first time. It’s a cute, emotional moment where the animators have somehow given life to water, as the ocean reaches out to and interacts with Moana, lifting her up and rustling her hair. Considering what I’ve said about modern Disney films and their relationship with magic, in intrigued to see how Moana plays with this relationship and the power Moana has. From what we saw here, I’m expecting something clever and unqiue.

The Q&A followed and while there was nothing especially revelatory (beyond what I’ve already mentioned) it’s clear that Shurer is proud of the film and it was a joy to hear her talking about it. I get the sense that Disney is seeing this as a pretty unique Princess film that reacts to some recent criticism and attempts to build a template for the future. It certainly looks like a promising template and an hour spent in the film’s company has only whetted my appetite further for a film I’m incredibly excited to see.

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