ONCE UPON a time, in his early incarnations, Maui the Disney demigod bore a striking tonsorial resemblance to People magazine’s latest idea of a man-god.
In the animated movie “Moana,” which opens Wednesday, Maui sports full and flowing hair. But his thick raven mane only took shape after the film’s creative leaders eventually chose to ditch Maui’s bald pate — an original look that resembled the noggin of Dwayne Johnson, the actor (and People’s new “Sexiest Man Alive”) who voices the ancient chief of Polynesian mythology.
“No one felt like bald Maui was the way to go,” says “Moana” character art director Bill Schwab, recounting the feedback that the Disney filmmakers got from some of their experts on Pacific Islander culture. “We sort of got Dwayne’s look with a shaved head,” but the character grew in coiffure, as well as in physical size, as “Moana’s” designers kept returning to the drawing board.
“We knew we had some room to make this guy a little broader in design — a little more cartoony,” Schwab says of Maui.
It’s a sensitive endeavor to take a beloved figure of ancient cultural mythology and morph him according to your modern animation needs, especially because legends vary somewhat about the mighty Maui, who is viewed as the ensnarer of the sun and the trickster who muscled the Hawaiian islands up from the sea. (On Tuesday, the L.A.-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans said that an audience of Pacific Islanders attending a “Moana” Q&A “felt that Disney had somehow managed to combine three different cultures and values into one, and present it accurately and authentically to a wider audience.”)
Team “Moana,” says Schwab (“Frozen,” “Wreck-It Ralph”), also pursued visual creativity with full respect to what Maui represents.
“Maui is incredibly powerful,” says Schwab, nodding to the character’s mythic physical feats. Early on, the designers created a leaner Maui closer to traditional depictions.
Yet Schwab envisioned Maui as being “both funny and powerful simultaneously,” so pushing the demigod’s dimensions fit the film’s needs — especially as he played visually off of the lean, teen title character.
“Contrast in design is extremely important,” says Schwab, noting how the classic Laurel and Hardy pairing of opposite body types in film heightens visual interest.
“Maui’s and Moana’s relationship on the screen is so dynamic, you want to make sure you express that visually, as well,” Schwab says. “One thing we’re always balancing is to have characters who are so different in proportions [work visually] in the same world, so they can exist together.”
Balance is one key to visual believability, Schwab says; another vital component is research. “Moana” demanded a deep dive into authentic Polynesian patterns and designs, from clothes to tattoos.
Disney Animation chief John Lasseter pushed the designers to answer exacting inquiries. “What shells did they have, what would have been available?” says Schwab, recounting Lasseter’s questions about true Polynesian culture. “What ancient dyes did they use?” And what of their wood and woven materials?
The film’s Maui also sports intricate tattoos that themselves move like additional characters — a “shadow play” of gorgeous storytelling in silhouette.
Because so many pseudo-Polynesian designs live online, “Moana” designers searched carefully to study the true tattoos of Samoan chiefs. (Johnson himself is half Samoan, and almost all the film’s voice actors have Pacific Islander heritage.)
And amid the many visual decisions that bear no resemblance to the actual actors, there is one aspect of Maui that is especially reminiscent of his voice actor in more subtle ways than size.
“There’s a lot of Dwayne in his facial expressions,” Schwab says.