Israeli Behind Disney's Moana Leads Her Princess Into Battle

Osnat Shorer, who spent five years getting Disney’s latest princess animation feature to the big screen, hopes she can beat the stunning success of its 2013 predecessor, ‘Frozen.’

This image released by Disney shows Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, "Moana."
Disney/AP

When two years ago, Disney announced the late-2016 release date for its animated movie, featuring a wholly new princess character, Moana, they knew it wouldn’t be easy to repeat the stunning success of “Frozen.” That film brought in $1.2 billion in ticket sales alone, never mind how much Disney will make selling dolls, Halloween costumes and other Frozen franchise fare.

Frozen was a stunning success – at a production cost of about $150 million, Disney had entertained high hopes of the movie but nobody foresaw how big it would be upon its release in Thanksgiving 2013.

People wondered if Disney could pull it off again – introduce a new, unknown princess to their pantheon and chalk up another blockbuster, perhaps like Frozen, making the top-10 of all time. Or at least achieve ticket sales of a billion dollars.

“We worked on Moana for five years, utterly focused on our mission, six days a week, 12 hours a day,” says Osnat Shorer, an Israeli who spent last week making the rounds of cinemas in Europe, from Rome to London, where the movie was premiering. Almost half the people who had worked on Frozen came to work on Moana, she says.

The task is a tall one: making a movie that appeals to children and adults alike, from America to Israel to Iceland and Russia.

“All I want is for the world and the viewers to love the movie. We fell in love with the plot and the characters and the cultures shown in it,” she says.

Osnat Shorer
Alex Kang / Disney

So far it’s been so good for the film, which tells the story of the strong-willed daughter of a Polynesian chief.

Moana’s first-night screening in the United States brought in $15.7 million, a Disney record which surpassed even Frozen’s first-night figures. That Thanksgiving weekend, the movie grossed $82 million in the U.S., a touch behind Frozen’s $93 million. By the end of the first week Moana was the most-watched movie in France, Russia and the U.S., among others.

As of Tuesday, Moana had grossed $147.6 million in the United States and Canada and $96 million in other countries for a worldwide total of $243.6 million.

Americans have a passion for statistics; Hollywood is driven by money and statistics; sometimes the outcome, in the attempt to draw attention to a movie by appealing to that mania for stats, can be nutty “achievements” such as “biggest grosser in the first three days of Thanksgiving weekend” or “most profitable movie at the end of the first week of July”.

But Frozen was such a powerful success worldwide that it had made life very tough for anyone who wants to compare, and Shorer immediately begs to note that expectations should be kept in proportion.

Shorer was born in Kfar Saba and served in army intelligence. She studied cinema at New York University and is today one of the biggest producers in the Hollywood animation scene.

This image released by Disney shows characters Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, right, and Moana, voiced by Auli'i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, "Moana."
Disney/אי־פי

Cartoons hadn’t been her aim when she graduated. She had been more attracted to documentaries, theater production, directing – but after moving to the U.S. West Coast over 10 years ago, she wound up with Pixar, where she was responsible for producing the shorts that became the company’s hallmark.

Thus she became involved in all aspects of moviemaking, from editing short sequences for DVDs to films for amusement parks that Pixar sold to Disney to ads for movies – she had a great time at Pixar, Shorer adds.

At the time, Pixar was being run by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who had bought the business from George Lucas in 1986.

“Jobs was simply an amazing manager,” says Shorer. “A sort of laser beam in focus – he knew exactly what he wanted, but had 100% faith in his workers.”

In 2006, after a number of hits including Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo, Jobs sold Pixar to Disney for $7.4 billion. During the merger, Shorer helped the Disney animation director establish a department for short animated movies. She then quit the company, but only briefly – she was brought back by animation director John Musker to be head of the development department at the Disney animation studios. Since then she’s participated in several projects but spent the last five years working on Moana.

Polynesia on his mind

Moana, directed by Musker with Ron Clements, is a supernatural tale set 2,000 years ago, involving a Polynesian princess originating from a dynasty of navigators (!), whom the ocean itself taps to reunite a goddess with a mystical relic and who winds up saving her people with the help of a demigod named Maui.

Musker had Polynesia on his mind – islands surrounded by the endless Pacific, stories and mythology about Maori culture (the New Zealand Maoris originated in Polynesia).

“One day he told us, ‘It’s an amazing world – go there. Do some proper research,” Shorer says. They went there a lot in the last five years.

Thus began the production of Moana, Disney’s 56th animated movie. In contrast to movies involving live people, animations involve one producer. As producer, she doesn’t have to care about the real world, only her story, explains Shorer – and to create it in a way that appeals to as wide an audience as possible.

Another difference is that if one wants to tweak an animated movie, all it takes is a computer, not monkeying with locations and the availability of actors. That privilege can tempt the makers to fiddle with the product endlessly until its actual release.

It’s her job, says Shorer, to find the right balance, choose the team, develop the story and music, and find the right actors to voice it.

A animated musical’s soundtrack is one of the most critical factors in its success and one of Shorer’s most fortuitous choices was hiring the composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the book and music for the Broadway sensation “Hamilton.” The musical has won a Pulitzer Prize, 11 Tony awards (and a record 16 nominations) as well as a host of other awards.

“When we brought in Lin-Manuel to the film he still wasn’t what he is today,” she recalls. “That was before Hamilton, before the Pulitzer and all the Tony awards. We simply knew that he had something special. Working with Opetaia Foa’I and Mark Mancina, who wrote the musical created a special, believable musical world and an exciting story.”

The two chief voice actors brought their South Pacific heritage to the film, but in very other way the two were different. Hawaiian-born Auli’i Cravalho, who plays the title character, is just 16 years ago and Moana was her voice acting debut. Dwayne Johnson, who plays Hawaiian demigod Maui is an American actor, producer, and professional wrestler with a long list of action film credits on his resume. His mother was born in Samoa.

Far more than its competition in the world of animated films, Disney has the resources to spend whatever it like to produce the films it wants. In the case of Moana, the budget hasn’t been disclosed but it was probably in the range of $150 million. Still, Shorer says, with all that investment at stake, it’s not the people with the money who make the decisions.

“We’ve recreated a studio like Pixar in which directors and screenwriters are the ones who make the film – not the executives and budget people,” she says. “There the ones who together will know what films will speak to people.”

“Every three months we would sit and screen the film - sometimes with just basic animation and dubbed voices – in front of the other directors at the studio. They put aside their work, sometimes three days, and sit with us to build a stronger film. This could only happen Disney’s animation studios. “