For such a small country, New Zealand has a pretty robust history with blockbuster movies. We've seen our glorious landscape and talented actors in multiple huge films.
But few Kiwis would ever have predicted that Maui, the demigod who fished New Zealand out of the sea, as we all learned in primary school, would eventually star in a big CG-animated Disney movie.
But he is, in the new smash hit Moana (hitting NZ cinemas on Boxing Day), and he's voiced by none other than international superstar - and one-time Grey Lynn resident - Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
Set in "Ancient Polynesia", the plot has Maui reluctantly teaming up with the title character, a headstrong young chief's daughter (voiced by 15-year-old Hawaiian Auli'i Cravalho) to reclaim a mystical relic tied to her people's fate as ocean-crossing navigators.
The film comes from legendary Disney co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, the men behind classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
Moana is their first CG (computer-generated) animated film, and it arrives in the midst of Walt Disney Animation Studios' creative and commercial renaissance, marked by the huge success of films like Frozen and Zootopia.
Speaking to TimeOut at Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California, Musker says the idea to hang a film on Maui came to him after he began researching the cultural history of Polynesia.
"I was intrigued by the area, and then I started reading Polynesian mythology, which I knew nothing about," says Musker. "In reading it, I discovered this character of Maui and I read a bunch of different stories and it was just so amazing. It had such a rich vein of storytelling, these bigger-than-life stories."
As Musker mentions, there are multiple stories about Maui across many Pacific cultures, and the filmmakers didn't want to tie the film to any one tradition.
"Our movie's kind of a melting pot of the Pacific," says Musker. "We really wanted, based on the people that we talked to initially, to try to make it a Pan-Pacific story. So New Zealand was a part of it, but so was Samoa, so was Tahiti, so was Fiji."
Musker and Clements visited all those countries for research, spending time in Rotorua and at Auckland's Pasifika music festival while they were in New Zealand. Although neither Maui nor Moana are voiced by Kiwis, almost all the other speaking roles are filled by Aotearoa talent.
"There's a big New Zealand influence with Rachel [House as Moana's grandmother] and Tem [Morrison as Moana's father] and Jemaine [Clement as a giant egotistical crab]," says Clements. "But obviously the story takes place before New Zealand was actually, you know, fished out of the sea. So it's a little bit indirect..."
For House and Morrison, taking part in the film is something of a dream-come-true as they both share fond memories of growing up watching regular Sunday night Disney features with their families - "back when we only had two channels".
"I remember fondly those times - I think it was one of the few times we actually sat as a family. So now many years later, to be in one of these, it's [great]," Morrison says.
"But did you ever imagine you'd see Polynesians in there?" House asks.
"No, no I didn't," he responds.
Though House and Morrison initially had their doubts over how the cultures of the Pacific would be represented, they were encouraged by the involvement of another major New Zealand influence on the film, Taika Waititi.
The acclaimed writer/director behind Hunt For The Wilderpeople and Boy, was hired early on by Musker and Clements to help develop the story thanks to Dionne Fonoti, a Samoan anthropologist who was part of the Oceanic Story Trust formed to consult on the film.
"We were casting about for a writer from the Pacific who could bring that authenticity," says Musker. "And Dionne very quickly recommended Taika and so our development people got in touch with him. I think he was out here on another project so he came by, we showed him storyboards.
"We had sort of a visual outline of the story at that time and pitched it to him," adds Clements. "He was really excited about it and he worked on it I think for probably close to a year."
Between Waititi's voice and Disney's imagery, the cast was won over.
"I had confidence in Taika's first draft, then I saw some of the scenes and they looked absolutely beautiful and ... felt familiar," says House. "I was also really pleased that finally, there would be a strong, young, feisty, Polynesian heroine as a central protagonist. That's what I was excited about."
But the development periods of animated movies are famously long, and Waititi's flourishing filmmaking career eventually tore him away from the project.
"We had the misfortune of hiring someone who was so brilliant as a writer/director," says Musker. "So the idea of spending five years in a room with us was not high on his things-to-do-list. He wrote treatments and he wrote the first draft of the script."
"And then he went back to New Zealand to do What We Do In The Shadows," adds Clements. He's been back from time to time, and we've shown him things and kind of gone over stuff with him. But Taika was great and he's really talented and of course he's a writer and a director and an actor."
Another large New Zealand influence in the film is Opetaia Foa'i, leader of the Polynesian fusion band Te Vaka. Foa'i composed many of the songs in the film, in collaboration with scorer Mark Mancina and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the newly minted star behind Broadway sensation Hamilton (not the Waikato one).
"The first time we met Opetaia was over Skype and he was very excited about the whole project," says Musker. "We explained our idea of trying to make this a celebration of Polynesian culture and we felt that his music was just that. It had this kind of rootsy feeling even though it was written contemporarily, but it feels like it draws from these deeper things and makes it accessible to a modern audience and that's what we wanted."
Foa'i also proved himself to be a warrior for Pacific culture, fighting tooth and nail to make sure the music accurately portrayed the mana associated with the story.
"They're not from this culture so I can expect them - with good intentions - to make mistakes. It's just one of those things," Foa'i said of his colleagues. "But when I put my foot down they were able to go, 'oh okay, Opetaia says this so we'll look at that again.'"
Foa'i spent the better part of 20 years travelling and learning from elders around to get a grasp of the Pacific and the culture, so "I know it might be a bit arrogant but ... I felt like I'd done my homework and ... understood what was culturally right and what wasn't.
"I put my foot down and said no way. This thing here, you've got to treat it with respect, it describes the mana that the ancestors had, the confidence they had in voyaging these waters, their pride in finding their direction and knowing where they wanted to go," he says.
"I actually stood up and I think the whole room went quiet because I got carried away telling everyone off. I probably should've been sacked about four times for doing things like that, but luckily they kept me."
Though many people in New Zealand and the greater Pacific are celebrating the fact that Disney is embracing Polynesian culture, one aspect of the film has still generated moderate controversy: the design of Maui himself. Some have expressed criticism over his size, while others have countered that it's representative of many Islanders.
"I did see this online video that someone sent us," says Musker. "Where these New Zealand kids are talking: 'What do you think of this Maui?'. There's these kids who are sort of saying 'I think he looks okay,' and other kids who are going 'I think he looks kinda chubby or whatever', and so even within these kids it ran the gamut. We were influenced by people we saw in the islands who were these powerful people, but built solidly. Like they could pull up an island, or that they could fight a demigod, or fight a living volcano, it just felt right to us."
Moana also drew similar controversial comments from Disney fans who said the princess was also "a bit bigger than normal", but Rachel House rejects both criticisms.
"I identified with [Moana and Maui] immediately. I was actually relieved to see the way they looked," she says. "I'm actually a bit surprised about some of the fuss that's being made about Moana.. I go: 'But why? She's completely normal. Are you kidding? She's healthy, she's strong, She's where it should be at.'"
The directors say the same for Maui.
"My hope is that when people see it in the context of the movie and he's doing these heroic things and you see his relationship with Moana and you see that he's doing these powerful things, that you'll kinda see him as, you know, a bigger-than-life demigod. Powerful. That's what we were going for."
Moana is released in New Zealand on Boxing Day.
- Additional reporting Siena Yates