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Mililani teen lands lead in Disney’s ‘Moana’

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    Mililani teenager Auli‘i Cravalho is picked to star in Disney’s ‘Moana.’
    Auli‘i Cravalho: The sophomore comes from a family of entertainers.

The newest addition to the Disney family of animated heroines is a humble, soft-spoken teenager from Mililani who stayed home from school Wednesday to avoid the attention that would come from a studio announcement that she will be the star of “Moana.”

To be the voice of a new Disney feature means that Auli‘i Cravalho, a 14-year-old sophomore at Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama, is on her way to becoming an international household name — which is ironic, given that much of her family knows Auli‘i by her first name, Chloe.

“Her family members know her as Chloe and at school she goes by Auli‘i,” said her cousin, Kalamaku Freitas, who had to ask himself who Auli‘i Cravalho was when he saw the news Wednesday morning on Facebook. “It’s hard to adjust,” he said. “I had to think a bit.”

But Freitas is crystal clear on why Disney chose Auli‘i, who told him in a phone call that she was blessed to have such an opportunity.

“She is the most humble person I know,” said Freitas, a 19-year-old Hawaiian studies major at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. “I think she is the perfect fit for ‘Moana.’ She represents aloha. She represents Hawaiian people very well. She isn’t the type to go and boast and brag.”

The Moana character wants to be a navigator, a wayfinder who can journey across the ocean by reading the stars like Nainoa Thompson on the Hokule‘a.

According to Disney, the story takes place 3,000 years ago in Oceania where Moana — “a spirited teenager on an impossible mission to fulfill her ancestors’ quest” — sets sail for a fabled island. During her journey, Moana teams up with the demigod Maui, and together they encounter “enormous sea creatures, breathtaking underworlds and ancient folklore.”

Maui will be played by Hollywood heavyweight Dwayne Johnson, who brings his own Hawaii connection to the project: He lived in Hawaii off and on as a boy and attended McKinley High School when he was a freshman, playing football for the Tigers.

On Facebook Wednesday, Johnson said he was pumped to welcome Auli‘i to the project, noting how she did not initially want to audition for the part because she didn’t think she was good enough.

“An awesome lesson to all young kids out there … work hard, have confidence in yourselves and never think you’re not good enough because you never know what the future holds,” Johnson said in his post.

The teenager echoed her initial concerns in a press release from Disney.

“I didn’t think I would have a chance,” she said in the release. “When I was little, I used to dance around the house singing at the top of my lungs. In my mind, that was performing and I loved the feeling of it. But I never imagined being in a Disney movie, being Moana — representing my culture in that way.”

Fortunately for Auli‘i, local casting director Rachel Sutton knew of the young soprano’s singing skills. Auli‘i was the last person Sutton auditioned.

But Auli‘i comes by her talent naturally. Although an only child who lives on Oahu with her mother, Puanani, she has an extended family of singers and musicians who live on the Big Island.

She has uncles who performed as the Freitas Brothers in the 1980s, a grandmother who wrote Hawaiian music and another cousin who plays ukulele, sings and dances the hula.

“Our entire family are musicians and singers,” said Megan Hanato, a cousin who lives in Kailua-Kona. “My sister actually auditioned for the part as well. When we got the news my dad was happy that at least someone in the family got it.”

Hanato, a room service manager at the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai who owns a company that provides entertainers for hotels, said her whole family is in awe.

“I don’t know the words to express it,” she said. “It’s shock. All those feelings in one.”

Her cousin has been singing since she was young, Hanato said.

Veteran filmmakers Ron Clements and John Musker, who created “The Little Mermaid,” “The Princess and the Frog” and “Aladdin,” are directing the project. Both were impressed by the teenager’s audition.

“Auli‘i demonstrated a certain fearlessness in her auditions and callbacks,” Musker said in a statement released by Disney. “She has a playful, mischievous wit. She can project vulnerability, she doesn’t seem intimidated at all by the challenges ahead, and her Polynesian background has helped shape her connection to family, hard work and music. These are all qualities she shares with Moana.”

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