Disney’s “Moana” (and Auli‘i Cravalho) Hit a New High Note—in Hawaiian

With its translation into Hawaiian, the Disney hit makes history—as Aulii Cravalho sings “How Far I’ll Go” at the Grammy Awards.


HONOLULU got the last interview of the Moana media day with Auli‘i Cravalho. Given deadline and hierarchies, the two TV networks got first crack, then the newspaper. We didn’t mind spending time with the translation, producing, music, directing and acting teams, but the hour was getting late and we worried about Cravalho’s energy level, knowing she had to catch a flight to New York for the Grammy Awards.


Cravalho came in with a group—her modest entourage—and was settled into her chair and miked up by our digital media manager Diane Lee as David Croxford took photos. Cravalho’s long day of recording dialog and then doing media stand-ups was almost over; we had exactly 5 minutes and, just like that, the clock was rolling.


About to take my own seat, I introduced myself. And here, it must be said, I’m still smiling at the memory of what came next. The poised actress in the black leather jacket and leggings gave a cry, leaped out of the chair and gave me a big hug. It surprised us both, I think, the jolt of laughter and recognition—we’d talked to each over on the phone over the past three years, after two of her biggest moments, but had never met. Yet it made sense: Here was another milestone and a big one, culturally and personally.


We’d forgotten ourselves and were just talking about stuff when the coordinator standing behind us cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but you do only have 5 minutes.” Back to business we went—with no worries about energy. Cravalho had plenty.

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Auli‘i Cravalho (wearing Manuheali‘i) reprises her role as Moana—this time in Hawaiian.
Photos: David Croxford


“I know all the lines, in my heart, but saying them in Hawaiian is an entirely different ball game,” says Cravalho, leaning forward in her chair, soft brown locks tumbling. Back in town for a media day at the Mike Curb MELE Studio on the campus of Honolulu Community College, she’s here to help boost the revival of Hawaiian by revoicing, or dubbing, the Disney animated hit Moana into ‘ōlelo, as speakers prefer to call it. The project, which got underway with negotiations in July 2017 and then went into hyper-drive in September, came together swiftly and was embraced as a dream come true—a bit like Cravalho’s rise from Kamehameha Schools freshman to the star and avatar of the film.


“There’s so much joy in the lines, with them being in the language of my ancestors,” she adds, still energized at the end of a long day of recording and interviews, seemingly undaunted at facing a flight back to New York to attend the Grammys two nights from now. “While I still flub on the words, because I’m not 100 percent fluent in the language, speaking Hawaiian just feels like coming home.”


She pauses. “That can also be attributed to the fact that I’ve been gone from home so long,” she adds, judiciously. Since taking home an Oscar last year for best song, for “How Far I’ll Go,” Cravalho has spent a lot of time in Los Angeles and New York City, filming her upcoming NBC series, Rise. “Not only am I here and enjoying the sun and enjoying poke and Scott slippers”—and she sighs, as if knowing to the minute how much Island time she has left—“but I get to be part of a project that means so much to me—and I know will mean a lot to the current generation … and those who watch it years from now, who will be inspired to learn more about their culture and their language.”


It isn’t all slippers and poke, in other words; there’s kuleana. With Cravalho’s eager participation, the impact of the translation project is guaranteed to be magnified several times over. Children will sing the songs at bedtime and in the bath with their parents and ‘ohana. It’s only a matter of time before the Hawaiian “How Far I’ll Go” will be an anthem at karaoke bars. “It’s going to be a living legacy,” says Puakea Nogelmeier, leader of the translation project.

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Kaipu Baker’s Maui is “culturally confident.”


“It’s really nice to see ‘ōlelo legitimized as a professional language in a really fabulous feature film,” says Kaipu Baker, who plays demigod Maui with his own long, tousled hair—unlike Dwayne Johnson. He also uses his own kind of braggadocio. “The biggest thing about Maui is to resonate from his voice, just the sheer confidence he delivers. But I try to do it in my own confident swagger, more culturally confident, more ‘ōlelo, because if you do English or Western confidence in Hawaiian, it sounds really weird.”


Moana in Hawaiian is another milestone in the film’s surprising journey from an “Oh, no, what will they do to our culture now?” wariness to a warm embrace. Instead of being dogged by rumors of cultural appropriation, as it was before ever being screened, Moana has become a cultural touchstone. “We dropped everything and put our lives on hold,” says director Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, UH Mānoa Theatre & Dance kumu who has a play slated to open at the UH Kennedy Theatre in 2019—and hasn’t even started writing it.


A translation team was brought together across the University Hawai‘i system by renowned linguist Nogelmeier, UH professor of Hawaiian Language, voice of TheBus, and founder of the translation nonprofit Awaiaulu. “We moved fast,” Nogelmeier says. “We started the first of September and had a first of October deadline. First we’d do a literal translation, then redo the translation according to syllable counts to match the dialogue, and then do a third translation to match the syllables to the lip movements.” He arched an eyebrow. “They call that ‘lip flap.’”

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But none of it would’ve been possible—as in pitchable to Walt Disney Studios —without the UH Academy for Creative Media System, under the direction of founder Chris Lee. The Mike Curb MELE Studio is just part of a statewide state-of-the-art network: “We started with one program at the Mānoa campus; now we’re actually supporting multiple programs at all 10 campuses,” he says. As for the project, “I actually went to visit with Disney and convinced them to do this, that it wouldn’t take a lot of bandwidth for them. But the idea itself,” he adds, “came from one of my students: Kaliko Mai‘i,” who ended up an associate producer.


The musical direction came from Aaron Salā, UH West O‘ahu cultural specialist, Nā Hōku winner and well-known studio accompanist and conductor. “Our challenge was to take the translation that Puakea provided and rescore that to these pre-existing melodies, these big Disneyesque songs. The challenges? Some have to do with delivery; we want to main a sonorous melody, the melodic sounds of Hawaiian vowels, so we worked to get Auli‘i into the mindset of really thinking in the Hawaiian way about the delivery of a Hawaiian phrase. We’re really happy with what she’s been able to deliver for us—she’s a pro. She’s quite a star. She hits her mark, absolutely.”


 When asked what working on the project meant to him, Salā sidestepped. “Forgive me, but I am going to deflect the question, because one of the things that is the most important part of this project is it’s really student-driven. As an educator, this is the dream—that you can afford the students their dream of real-world opportunities.”

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Cravalho is proof of what just one opportunity can do. “Moana has connected me in so many ways now,” she says. “I grew up with her from 15, to 16 when the film came out, I’m 17 now. She’s taught me so much: to be strong, to be headstrong, to be independent, to think out of the box and not be afraid to adventure outside the reef, so to speak. And now she connects me in an entirely new way. I’m really lucky.”


An old saying holds that luck is the residue of design. In this case, a team was born, on short notice, bringing together, in addition to the above: Rick Dempsey, SVP creative for Disney Character Voices International; Disney CVI executive director Bryan Monroe; producer Heather Haunani Giugni, cultural specialist for UH West O‘ahu; producer Sharla Hanaoka, director of creative media at UH West O‘ahu; MELE recording faculty and engineer John Ross; Hawai‘i Five-0 casting director Rachel Sutton and Brent Anbe; more than 140 who auditioned for voice parts and the 23 voice actors who were eventually cast.


Two days after wrapping her dialogue, Auli‘i Cravalho was back in New York for the Grammys, where, as many predicted, she won for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” as best song for scripted media. Her TV series, Rise, premieres in March 2018. She’s going back to her Puerto Rican roots in this show, playing a young puertoriquena drama student in a New York City high school. “She’s a feisty one, too,” she says of her character, Lilette Suarez. “Headstrong in her own way, and so I connect with that.” And, of course, “I get to sing an entirely new set of songs.”