One of the most magical parts of Moana is the very first scene, in which an infant Moana waddles up to the shore and discovers that the Ocean is actually alive. Wordlessly, she coos and plays with the waves, and the waves playfully toss her about as well, leading her observing grandmother to realize that Moana is the Chosen One.
But that gorgeously rendered and enchanting scene almost didn’t make it into the movie. In fact, it was never meant to be in the final film at all, according to directors Ron Clements and John Musker. The scene was originally created as test footage, to see if they had the technology to render a sentient, alive Ocean. But test audiences loved the footage so much that the filmmakers had to find a way to put it in the movie.
Musker told the Huffington Post they wanted to explore the idea of a sentient Ocean before they even settled on the idea of making Moana. “And this test was the very first footage to be animated for this film,” Musker said.
Clements and Musker tapped story-artist-turned-director Chris Williams (who would go on to co-direct the Oscar-winning movie Big Hero 6) to create the sequence. Williams drew from his own personal experience of taking his two-year-old daughter to the ocean for the first time and watching her play with the waves, and a magical scene was born.
Williams boarded the test scene and — with the assistance of Moana art director/production designer Bill Schwab, who came up with the adorable toddler version of this film’s title character – put together just what Clements and Musker asked for. In fact, he did it a little too well. The original test footage (in the video clip below) was so popular with test audiences that Clements and Musker were constantly asked “Where does it fit in the movie?”
Hank Driskell, a technical supervisor on Moana, remembered the overwhelming success of the footage:
“At this point, that Baby-Moana-meets-the-Ocean test footage had kind of taken on a life of its own. It wound up being shown at the D23 EXPO. And even though it wasn’t even part of this film’s storyline at that time, it was so adorable and so many people had fallen in love with it that the story team eventually decided that they had to find a way to integrate this test footage into the story.”
But the scene didn’t fit with Clements and Musker’s original storyline for the film, which had Moana meeting the Ocean when she was a teenager. Musker recounted:
“For a long time while we were working on this movie, Moana didn’t actually ‘meet’ the Ocean, realize that it was a living thing until she was a 16 year-old. But the only problem with that Moana-meets-the-Ocean scene was that it wasn’t nearly as charming or powerful as that test footage that Chris had put together. We tried multiple versions of this introductory scene with Moana as a 16 year-old. But none of them were as good or as strong as what Chris had done.”
The filmmakers and crew struggled to organically fit the Baby Moana sequence into the movie. When they finally did, “there was this audible sigh of relief in the building,” David Pimental, Moana’s Head of Story said. “People here were saying things like ‘She’s in!,’ “It worked!’ It was such a good day.”
And we were blessed with an wonderful scene — in a year filled with adorable baby versions of beloved characters (Hey Dory!) — that elevated the film to become one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade.
Here’s the scene — in the international trailer for Moana — as it was shown in the final movie: