On its 2016 release, Moana had all the makings of a Disney classic. A strong-willed heroine on a quest to save her people, sumptuous animation, serious voice acting talent. Crucially, Moana also had great songs, especially the soaring “How Far I’ll Go,” written by – thanks to some inspired foresight and judgment on the part of Disney bosses – the hottest songwriter on the planet at the time, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Miranda was hired by Disney in 2014 to work on Moana. But, by the time the film was released, his game-changing Broadway musical Hamilton – a hip-hop-based telling of the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton – had become one of the most celebrated musicals of the modern age. Miranda wrote both the music and lyrics for “How Far I’ll Go,” and collaborated with Mark Mancina (The Lion King, Tarzan, Brother Bear) and Samoan music royalty Opetaia Foa’i for the rest of the songs featured in the movie.
In an interview with Animated World, Moana producer Osnat Shurer explained how the soundtrack came together. “We brought Mark Mancina on quite early to work with us musically. He has this love for world music, and the ability to use various types of instrumentation, especially early on, when we were just doing temp music to help move things along,” Shurer said. “Then we wanted a triumphant finish, a little like The Lion King, so we needed a strong storytelling songwriter. We went to New York and met with a lot, and fell in love with Lin-Manuel.”
For Miranda, the chance to work on Moana was a dream come true. The songwriter had grown up with Disney and would later tell Rotten Tomatoes that watching Sebastian the crab perform “Under The Sea” in The Little Mermaid as a child had inspired him to work in musicals. Though work on Hamilton was becoming intense, when Disney called, Miranda couldn’t turn them down. The songwriter found a way to fit Moana into his busy schedule, and the change of scenery that the animated movie offered even helped him, as he told Mom Endeavours in a 2016 interview, “Moana was a great oasis during the writing of Hamilton because anytime I was sick of the Founders, I’d go sail across the sea, over to Maui and Moana. And then we just built it into my crazy schedule.”
Miranda’s main task was to write Moana’s big “I want” song – the pivotal moment in the film where the audience understands the central character’s motivations and the things holding them back. Director John Musker revealed in a 2017 interview with IndieWire that it took some time for the filmmakers to decide exactly what made Moana tick. “Our story evolved quite a bit, and even the way this song fits in the movie moved around a few times,” said Musker. “And it changed quite a bit, too, in some cases with a few lyric adjustments, but certainly even how it was staged and where it fit into her general arc. There was a while when we first met her as a 16-year-old where there was a daredevil version.”
Co-director Ron Clements added, “Moana’s desire became a moving target. Early on, there was more of an island fever to her quest. The thing that became pushed was that she actually loved her island and was committed and wanted to help her people, and yet felt this pull to the ocean, and that’s where we ended up.”
It was eventually decided that the song would arrive at a point in the movie when the audience had been given a strong idea of Moana’s heritage – allowing us to understand her deep attachment to the island – but also felt her annoyance at being refused permission to fish beyond the island’s waters by her father.
Miranda took unusual steps to channel Moana’s frustration, as the songwriter told Moms Endeavour on the movie’s release, “I literally locked myself up in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house to write those lyrics. I wanted to get to my angstiest possible place. I went method on that because it’s a challenging song. It’s not, ‘I hate it here, I want to be out there.’ It’s not, ‘there must be more than this provincial life.’ She loves her island, she loves her parents, she loves her people. And there’s still this voice inside. It was finding that notion of listening to that little voice inside you and being who you are. That was a real key to unlocking her. Really nailing that moment of – it’s not about being miserable where you are, I related to that. I was 16 years old, and I lived on 200th Street, in New York, and I knew what I wanted to do for a living. I knew where I was, and the gulf just seemed impossible. Everything just seems so far when you’re that age. So that’s what I sort of tapped into to write that tune.”
Miranda’s approach paid off, “How Far I’ll Go” was a stirring power ballad that skillfully balanced Moana’s wanderlust with her love of her home. It was performed in the film by Auliʻi Cravalho, while Alessia Cara also recorded it for the end credits. It was nominated for Best Original Song at both the Oscars and Golden Globes and won the Grammy for Best Song Written For Visual Media. For Miranda, it was the realization of a dream that began with watching The Little Mermaid as a child. And the songwriter’s next project? Disney’s The Little Mermaid live-action movie, writing songs with Alan Menken. Dreams really can come true.