No roosters were harmed in the making of this film

A teenage girl may be the heroine of Disney’s Moana, but every character had a purpose and needed to earn their right to be in the movie. Even the livestock. And one animal almost didn’t make it. For 48 hours, the existence of Heihei the rooster hung in the balance. And it was up to the movie’s story team to save him. “Heihei was on the chopping block,” said story artist Sunmee Joh.

The fowl started out as playing guardian to Moana, but as time went on, something just wasn’t right, and even John Lasseter, the studio’s chief creative officer, insisted Heihei had to go. The filmmakers, however, had a soft spot for the bird and were desperate to keep him. So they begged the story team to make it happen.

via GIPHY

“We had to come up with a way to make him a complication for Moana and to tie him into the story,” Joh said. This meant taking him from a crabby and clever character to something more birdbrained, literally.  

They then used his lack of awareness to literally propel the story forward, as seen in the panel below. "He may be the dumbest character in the history Disney animation," said director Ron Clements. "He’s just not the sharpest knife in the drawer." 

The new plan worked, and after getting Lasseter's blessing, the bird was officially saved. Heihei’s spirit lived on for the team, in the form of rubber chickens as reminders, strewn about the office.

Top: In the initial version, Moana pursues the villainous Kakamora to capture the precious Heart of Te Fiti.
Bottom: The revised version puts Heihei at the center of the
action, when he cluelessly swallows the prize both the Kakamora and Moana are fighting over and finds himself at the center of the battle.

Art by Sunmee Joh.

Art by Dave Derrick

To know where you're going, you have to know where you came from

Moana filmmakers wanted an engaging story, but they also wanted authenticity, and to make sure the story a teenage Pacific Islander girl discovering her heritage rang true. To help accomplish this, story artist Dave Derrick was brought into the Disney fold.

Derrick, who named his daughter Samea after one of his Samoan ancestors, felt a connection to the film from the start. The first thing he did was go to the grave site of his great grandmother to create a rubbing of her headstone. Moana was a super-personal film for me. I hung that rubbing above my desk so that ever day I could be reminded of why I was making this and why I was working so hard.”

Derrick also traveled to Samoa and found himself inspired throughout the journey. “The trip helped emotionally ground me giving me a deeper understanding of the Samoan way which helped me better tell Moana's story,” he noted on Instagram, alongside a sketch drawn during a layover in Fiji.

In Samoa, the artist also got the opportunity to make a tapa, a decorative cloth made from tree bark.

Art by Dave Derrick

Then while working on the movie, he managed to sneak in an image of a tapa belonging to his grandfather.

Derrick said he found himself continually in awe of his Polynesian roots and the skills of his ancestors, who created the largest cultural footprint of any culture before western European expansion and were able to navigate their ships without instrumentation, using the ancient art of wayfinding.

“For me, this (project) is really an expression of gratitude and an expression of pride for the Polynesian community. It’s a celebration of a culture that is long overdue.”

Moana opens in theaters November 23.