The furry friends and scaled sidekicks that accompany animated ladies on their adventures are a Disney staple. Characters like Flounder, Mushu, and Pascal entertain kids and adults alike. The newest Disney princess, Moana, has her puppy-like pet pig, Pua, but she nearly lost out on having a feathered pal.

Fortunately for Firefly alum Alan Tudyk, his chicken character, Hei Hei, survived the making of Moana. It’s “one of the most fun roles I’ve ever done,” the frequent Disney voice actor told HitFix at San Diego Comic-Con.

For a while though, Hei Hei just wasn’t working. As recently as this April, it looked like he wouldn’t make it into the movie, set 2,000 years ago on a fictional Pacific island.

Originally, Hei Hei was a macho guy with big attitude, Moana story artist Sunmee Joh told press on a recent visit to Disney Animation’s campus in Burbank, California. “He was kind of like the chief’s watchdog. And he always stayed close by Moana.”

Moana’s directors — Ron Clements and John Musker, the guys who helmed Little Mermaid and Aladdin — wanted to keep Hei Hei in the movie, but he wasn’t fitting in so well as story changes were made.

When story artist David Derrick got really sick, breaking up the story team for a couple days, the directors said they should use that time to figure out how to keep Hei Hei in the movie.

“Save this chicken” was the writers’ mission, Derrick recalled, and they had 48 hours.

The story team realized “we had to think of a way to make [Hei Hei] a complication for Moana and really tie it to the story,” Joh said. 

So Hei Hei became an endearing bumbling idiot.

In the storyboards below, you can see one version of a moment without Hei Hei and one with him added back into the movie. These boards feature the pirate-like, coconut armor-clad creatures called Kakamora who are trying to steal the all-important Heart of the Sea stone from Moana and Maui. Hei Hei, in his incompetence, is no help in this dire situation. When Hei Hei 2.0 swallows the stone, the Kakamora end up dashing away with Hei Hei instead for a comedic sequence.


Derrick recalled pitching this new Hei Hei to John Lasseter in the very room where press gathered for the Moana writers’ presentation: 

“Lasseter was sitting in this chair right here, and he stood up and hes like, “Yes! Hei Hei has been saved! He's in the movie.”  

How did the Moana team celebrate? With a lunch of fried chicken.

Moana opens in theaters November 23.

An enthusiast of time travel stories, film scores, avocados and Charades, Emily Rome is an alumna of Loyola Marymount University and a native of beautiful Washington State. Emily’s writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyNRome.