Becoming Moana


With the release of Disney’s ‘Moana,’ local girl Auli‘i Cravalho is finding fame here in Hawaii and throughout the world

It’s ridiculous to imagine a nearly 28-year-old racked with nerves five minutes before a phone interview with a 16-year-old, but here we are.

This isn’t any interview, though. This one happens to be with newcomer Auli‘i Cravalho, star and voice of the titular character in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feat, Moana — and its first Polynesian princess.

In no time, she’s gone from being just another teenager from Mililani to, well, a very famous teenager from Mililani who regularly shows up on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Instagram.

Life is weird, and for Cravalho right now, it’s pretty great.

“It’s been crazy, not going to lie,” she says from Los Angeles a few weeks before Moana debuted in theaters. “But it’s been so much fun.”

A sketch by Walt Disney Animation Studios artist Jin Kim depicts Moana in her earliest stages before being brought to life in the film IMAGES COURTESY DISNEY

A sketch by Walt Disney Animation Studios artist Jin Kim depicts Moana in her earliest stages before being brought to life in the film

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Moana or have, at least, watched a trailer for the film. Maybe you’ve even seen the movie already. (Screenings began as early as Tuesday evening.)

But, just in case: The film tells the story of adventurous 16-year-old Moana, daughter of the chief of a tribe on Motunui Island, who must tap into her wayfinding heritage in order to save her people. Along the way, Moana teams up with demigod Maui (voiced by Johnson), and together they set sail on an adventure.

The story, Walt Disney Animation Studios explains, is inspired by the true history of Polynesian voyagers — making it all the more special for Cravalho, who is of Native Hawaiian ancestry.


“It’s really close to my heart,” she says. “Moana is inspired by all of us in Polynesia. It’s inspired by the Polynesian culture, and it warms me up just thinking about it.”

And to think she almost didn’t try out for the part. Thanks to a local casting director who remembered an unrelated audition Cravalho did, she was asked to audition anyway.

Things worked out, obviously.

“That still gives me chicken skin and goosebumps just thinking about it,” she says of learning she earned the role of Moana. “It was overwhelming joy. I just couldn’t believe it.”

Mililani girl Auli‘i Cravalho stars as the voice of the main character in Disney's ‘Moana' RAE HUO PHOTO

Mililani girl Auli‘i Cravalho stars as the voice of the main character in Disney’s ‘Moana’ RAE HUO PHOTO

She long had been interested in breaking into the entertainment biz. For someone who describes herself as “eccentric” and “a talker,” acting kind of just came naturally, says Cravalho. Singing, though — another talent she puts on full display in Moana — she credits entirely to her mother.

“She didn’t believe in binkies when I was a baby, so I screamed and screamed and developed wonderful lungs,” says Cravalho.

There wasn’t much Cravalho had to do to prepare for the part — other than go to the beach, she jokes. In many ways, Cravalho discovered that she and Moana are the same person. Both reside on islands, are very connected to their cultures and love the ocean.

So it made everything feel rather easy.

“I’m a total klutz on land, so the ocean literally is my friend,” she adds with a laugh. “I didn’t feel like I had to jump into a role or stretch my acting. I just had a lot of fun with it.”

A glimpse at Cravalho's on-screen character IMAGE COURTESY DISNEY

A glimpse at Cravalho’s on-screen character IMAGE COURTESY DISNEY

Though the film debuted this week, Cravalho was done with her part quite a while ago. Since then, she’s had the very difficult task of keeping things under wraps — tough for someone who likes to talk, she quickly points out.

At the time, she only had seen rough cuts of the film. (In some scenes, Moana was still missing hair.) But what she did see, Cravalho says she loved.

“I’m really looking forward to how everyone is going to react to it,” she says. “I know I loved it, but it’s always different to see people’s reactions, and I’m expecting just so many phone calls from my friends.

“She’s strong yet she’s beautiful and I think, in this day and age especially, we need more heroes and heroines, so I love that Disney has made someone like this,” Cravalho adds.

Somewhere in our conversation with Cravalho, she discusses her schedule. Today it’s L.A., before that it was Miami, where she had a chance to interact with Latin media — something Cravalho says was especially fun because she is Puerto Rican and Portuguese. Next up is a stop in Singapore and numerous other places.

She admits things have been rather hectic, but seems to handle it with more grace and maturity than, say, certain writers nearly twice her age. So much so that it’s entirely possible to forget that Cravalho is only a teenager, until she brings up homework.

Ah, yes, that adolescent necessity.

“It’s been interesting, I’ll tell you that,” she says of juggling her career and school life. “It’s all about balance, I realized.”

Aside from drama, her favorite school subjects are English and biology. She’s not quite sure yet what to study in college, but does bring up an interest in a career that combines law and biology.

It all just sounds like typical teenage woes — until the topic of fame comes up. She may be young, but Cravalho is well aware that she forever will be known as the girl who voiced Moana. It’s a big responsibility, she says, and already people have begun to recognize her out and about — which has given her an even greater role that will transcend Moana: that of a role model.

“It blows my mind and warms my heart at the same time,” she says. “I feel like I have so much more to learn. I suppose that’s also something that people look up to me about — that I’m constantly bettering myself.

“I think it’s important for everyone,” she adds. “Let us not stop growing and don’t stop getting to where you want to go.”

It’s a message she believes the film touches upon, as well, and one that Cravalho hopes will connect with viewers of all ages, regardless of gender. “This movie is about a journey,” says Cravalho. “But I think people can connect to her more emotional journey of finding herself, and that time she takes to really understand that is something everyone should do. It’s completely necessary.”

You see how easy it is to forget she’s only a teenager? For now, she’s just going to see where her own journey takes her. Cravalho has a few things in the works, but nothing she can share just yet.

Oh, and my anxiety about talking to Cravalho?

It was as absurd as it sounded. “Heyyy girllll, what’s up?” she drawls, upon finding out we live in the same town. “We should meet at the Mililani Starbucks sometime.”

Yep, as down to earth as it gets.