Osnat Shurer knows good fortune when it strikes. At Deadline’s Contenders event today, the producer of the highly-anticipated animated musical Moana talked about how the project landed Broadway’s hottest name in years: Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Talk bout lucky, right?” Shurer said about Miranda, who cowrote some of the music for the film, during the Contender’s Pixar/Disney Animation panel. “We went to New York and met with a number of songwriters. I just want to say, for the record, this was before Hamilton. I loved the bilingual quality he had In the Heights. We just loved him, we loved his energy.”
Shurer recalled when Miranda first told her about his unusual upcoming project—a musical about the Founding Father conveyed through hip hop—and how she could never have foreseen its incredible success. “I thought, ‘Two months and I’ll have him full time,” she joked.
Directed by Disney icons Ron Clements and John Musker—the artists behind such classics as Aladdin and The Little Mermaid—Moana is set some 2000 years ago in the Pacific Islands, and follows a young woman setting out in search of a fabled island using only the stars and her incredible navigational skills. With the titular character voiced by Auli’I Cravalho, the film also stars Dwayne Johnson, Jemanine Clement and Alan Tudyk.
Shurer said the film also features many contributions from real Pacific Islanders, in the cast and the production team. She noted that she was inspired by the resourcefulness and remarkable skills possessed by the islanders as they made their long-ago migrations. “The thing that struck us was how amazing these feats were,” Shurer told Deadline’s panel moderator Anthony D’Alessandro. “Our story plays on the mystery that the scholars aren’t quite sure why the migration stopped and why it continued again.”
Shurer spoke of a research trip alongside the film’s directors, a transformative experience that also changed the nature of the film. “We came back with a totally different story and changed ourselves forever,” she said.
Also appearing today as part of the Pixar and Disney Animation panel were producers Clark Spencer of Zootopia and Lindsey Collins of Finding Dory, projects which have grossed over $1 billion worldwide in a stellar year for Disney.
Zootopia follows a small-town bunny headed to the sprawling city of Zootopia with dreams of being a police officer, combatting stigma and bunny stereotypes along the way. Spencer spoke of Zootopia’s political resonance—could he have foreseen the way in which the film plays today, amidst daily headlines of Donald Trump’s latest incendiary remarks? “I wish we could say we had that kind of forecasting, but no,” he said.
Addressing the thematic underpinnings of the film, and a message that is perhaps more vital than ever in these final pre-election days, Spencer said, “We looked deeply at the idea of talking about predator and prey. It got us talking about using animation as an allegory to talk about bias, and we got really excited about that.”
On the subject of Dory—the long-awaited sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo, which pursues a narrative from the perspective of the forgetful blue tang fish—Collins said that director Andrew Stanton initially was reluctant to take on a sequel, feeling that the story had been told. “He was done. He felt resolved about Nemo, and was in the press actively saying there wouldn’t be a sequel,” she said.
But after re-watching the film, Stanton recognized that there was more to say. “He was like, ‘Wow, I’m really worried about Dory! I think she could get lost again tomorrow,” Collins explained. “For him, it was almost like a parent feeling, as if you’d sent your child out into the world unprepared or unfinished.”
Collins also discussed her own voicing of a character within the film, and the process by which producers and behind-the-scenes talent get involved in that capacity. “We’re up in Northern California, so we have very limited access to our cast. We iterate so much that we pull in-house people to read lines, because we’re moving so fast,” she said before leaking an interesting reveal.
“I’m the voice of Dory until Ellen [DeGeneres] comes in and blows me away.”
Moana hits theaters on November 23, just in time for Thanksgiving.