Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is the first of its kind for the animation studio. Inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, the fantasy epic features Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. Though Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen’s script contains cultural specificities that resonate with certain audiences, the film utilizes the universal theme of trust and modern-day humor to connect with the entire audience. And it helps to have some breathtaking animation and exciting action sequences to help keep the audience engaged.
Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when the evil Druun threatened that peace, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the land. 500 years later, the Druun has returned, and it is up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to find Sisu (Awkwafina) and drive the evil out of Kumandra. But she soon discovers it will take more than a dragon’s magic to stop the evil shapeless monster. Though she was betrayed by her friend Namaari (Gemma Chan), Raya learns about the true power of trust.
WLE joined their fellow journalists for a massive virtual press conference for Raya and the Last Dragon. Here are the six things we took away from it.
1 – Recording Situations
Raya and the Last Dragon was animated and recorded in over 400 homes during the time of Covid. It presented many technological challenges, from internet connections to finding the space to record dialogue. “It was amazing actually being able to record from home because living in Hawaii, anytime I try and travel to go shoot something, it’s at least five hours and sometimes 11 by plane,” Daniel Dae Kim said. “So to be able to kind of walk downstairs in my T-shirt and shorts was pretty great. Although I will have to say it wasn’t without hiccups.”
Kim admits to not recording hours of dialogue when he uploaded his packets to send out to Disney. But after learning his lesson, it was pretty much a hassle-free process for him the rest of the way.
Kelly Marie Tran had a similar experience with the isolation and inability to physically act against somebody. She credits the behind-the-scenes teams who created an on-screen camaraderie between these characters, even though the actors who voice them recorded their sessions in isolation.
It was a different experience for Benedict Wong, who voices the fearsome Spine warrior Tong. While he was in Australia, he got to record in an actual studio.
2 – Representing Southeast Asia
To see and hear yourself in the characters and recognize cultural aesthetics carries a lot of emotional weight, especially to those who are marginalized or underrepresented. “It’s amazing to see all the things that are included in this movie, including the food and some of the weapons that you see. The Kali sticks that I saw, which really stood out to me,” Izzac Wang, who voices Boun, said.
But honoring Southeast Asia extends far beyond just the superficial aesthetics. It’s also in the smaller details like Raya and Namaari’s duty to serve their community and honor their family. For Thalia Tran, voicing con baby, Noi, was nothing anything she has ever done in her career. And yet, she was able to relate to her character because she strongly connected with her family. “Growing up in a Vietnamese family, you know that family always first,” she said. “From the traditions to just everyday life, a family is just such a huge part of it, especially now in quarantine with my family all the time.”
Kim chimed that we cannot undervalue the power of the fact that Raya and the Last Dragon is a Disney film. He expressed how families and parents with their children will see the magnitude of representation on screen. “People like Izzac [Wang] and Thalia [Tran] have the space to perform in these kinds of projects for maybe the first time in history to this degree,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m also thinking about all the children who will be seeing Raya for the first time and seeing a strong Asian female kick-ass and become a queen.”
“All of these things are such a positive portrayal. It’s an exposure that brings understanding, and that understanding is what changes perception,” Kim said. “What this movie does, on the scale of those things, cannot be underestimated.”
And to avoid leaving any Southeast Asia culture out of the picture, both Lim and Nguyen wisely set Raya and the Last Dragon in the fictional world of Kumandra. “To Disney’s credit, they really went deeper to find the underlying inspirations and core threads that ran through so many of the communities,” Lim said. “The wonderful thing is in these Asian countries and cultures is there’s such a strong spirit of community.”
“Seeing how animation has moved on for someone like myself, growing up in the 70s and the 80s, I didn’t say anything,” Sandra Oh, who voices Chief Virana, said. “I feel like that has been the same way, representation wise for a very long time.” Oh added that she was glad to be alive to be a part of the virtual press conference to see the people who have made it.
Oh was equally excited to be a part of the film that would give young actors like Wang and Tran the opportunities to be in a space where they can be heard. “It’s an exhilarating change for someone like myself to be a part of and witness,” she said.
For Lim, telling a story about a divided world and providing perspective from both sides, and using all those cultural inspirations helped to tell a greater arc of the story. But it was also a collective effort of other Southeast Asians who grew up on Disney that helped add layers of authenticity to the film. “Even if you know nothing about Southeast Asia, that you’re really able to feel that love and that attention, you know, at every layer of our film,” she said.
3 – Message of Trust
Although Oh, could not speak about Southeast Asian cultures, she talked about how the film’s characters address themes of trust in a nuanced way. “I was extremely moved by the message of this film because I feel myself struggling to learn how to trust as well,” she said. “So to play a section of the film, who see the antagonist or the people who are struggling to take power, who are the powerful people, I feel like the storytelling, and the characters, particularly Gemma’s character – Namaari -, has a very nuanced and more complex look at things, which is where I feel like we need to bring storytelling anyway to a more nuanced point of view.
That aspect of the story also resonated with Chan, who echoed Oh’s sentiments about their antagonistic characters’ complexity. “I find that really interesting. She and Raya are also kind of two sides of the same coin,” she said. “You could imagine them having each other’s upbringings and easily taking each other’s place.
“Our world is complex, and the problems of the world are only going to start to be solved if we all work together. And the lack of trust and division is a huge problem. But again, you know, you can also understand why the people of Fang trying to protect themselves, you can understand why we have elements in society that want to protect their own self-interest. These are really complex themes to explore in a family film, and I applaud the storytellers for tackling this. I think it couldn’t come at a more kind of timely moment for where we are and the position we’re in in the world right now. So I’m so so happy and proud to be a part of this film.
Co-director Carlos López Estrada said he and co-director Don Hall and producer Osnat Shurer were very moved by what Chan and Oh brought to their roles. “They both connected with their characters, but also the philosophy of Fang, and the fact that these are people who just want to protect their people,” he said. “They are not really villains, and they really passionately care about their community. Both of them really just embrace this idea. I think it added a layer of complexity to our movie that was very necessary.”
4 – Two Sides of the Same Coin
“I love the fact that they have this kind of love-hate dynamic. But at their core, they have so much in common,” Chan said about the relationship between Namaari and Raya. “She’s got this real kind of quiet aggressive exterior, but underneath it all, she’s got this huge heart, and she has this really kind of love for dragons.” Despite their character’s rivalry, Chan loves that there is a commonality, and it is the kind of dynamic that anyone can share.
“I absolutely agree. I think setting up these characters as kids and just see how authentically they connect at a young age, and then cutting forward and seeing the way that they’ve sort of been divided, it’s really incredible,” Kelly Marie Tran said. “When I really think about in my life when things like that have happened to me or when I think about just how difficult it is to get out of your own biases when you’re looking at someone who you see as an enemy. And then by the end of the story, Raya and Namaari are suddenly willing to step outside of themselves to the risk everything for this idea of community, this idea of, of what their relationship could have been this entire time. It’s really, really inspiring.”
Kelly Marie Tran sees Raya and Namaari’s dynamics and their willingness to step outside of themselves and risk everything for this idea of community and this idea of what their relationship could have been this entire time as inspiring. “It’s something that I want to do in my own life,” she said. “Their relationship in this movie is probably one of my favorites, just because of how complicated it is.
“It kind of shows, you know how when we’re young, and as children, we’re not inherently we don’t hate each other,” Chan said. It’s something that comes through from you know, whether it’s a parental or family influence, or your particular tribe, you know, that those things alone. I think that’s something to kind of take from the movie that those things can be learned. But they can be unlearned as well.”
5 – Martial Arts
In addition to being a co-writer and co-producer on Raya and the Last Dragon, Nguyen also served as a martial arts consultant. He made sure that the film used authentic Southeast Asian martial arts like Pencak Silat, Muay Thai, and Arnis in the fight sequences. Additionally, the film also sees Raya wielding an assortment of weapons like a Kris, a jagged sword typically found in Indonesia, or Kalis sticks used in the traditional Arnis martial arts.
Hall said they leaned on Nguyen for the martial arts inspiration seen in the film. Nguyen also referred to Maggie Macdonald for the film’s stunt choreography. Her involvement proved to be essential as she was able to choreograph the fights from a female perspective. She also brought in a female team of fighters to do the reference for the fight sequences because Raya and Namaari were the leads. Nguyen wanted their fighting styles to be different because he wanted to reflect their speed, strength, agility, and culture. What he didn’t want was for them to make a move that the Rock should be doing. “It’s really nice to be able to see martial arts that touched my culture,” Nguyen said.
“But we do think that Raya could take on The Rock easily, for sure,” Estrada said.
6 – Current Injustice
The recent surge of violence towards Asians and Asian-Americans and the timing of Raya and the Last Dragon‘s release is a terrible coincidence. Hall says the film, which was meant to be timeless, ended up being unbelievably timely. “I think it emboldened us to continue forward because we felt like we had something to say,” he said. “And if this film can just teach one person to be brave enough to trust somebody, then we feel like we’ve done what we set out to do.
Nguyen hopes the film can serve as a counterpoint to all of the negative imagery that has been associated with Asian-American for the last 365 days.
“It’s hard not to appreciate that this movie is coming out, and gives a counterpoint in just telling a positive story that gives a positive spin to, or not just a positive spin, but just celebrating Asian-American skin and Asian-American lives, Asian-American people,” he said. “Because I think that if you only see, and I think this is with any group that’s underrepresented, stories where you’re seeing as the bad guy, or a dog, or what have you, it starts to paint a very negative picture of you for those who don’t ever get to know you.”
“The most powerful thing that I think a film can accomplish is it can let it can give someone an opportunity to experience life through someone else’s eyes, someone who you give you a perspective that you wouldn’t have,” Estrada said. “Raya does that in a way that it’s very optimistic, very hopeful. And through it, you know, we got to learn about cultures that were not our own people and that were not our own problems.”
“With everything that’s been happening in this last year, the violence towards Asian-Americans, and seeing each other as the other, words have power and words have the power to paint people in a different light and bring us together,” Lim said. “So hopefully, you know, this movie is our word and our message to the world to pull together.”
“But I can say, all of us having seen these sort of attacks happening over and over and over consistently, you do get to that place sometimes where you feel like, ‘Oh, this is this is a very broken world,'” Kelly Marie Tran said. “There’s a lot of pain that happens there and recognizing that the only way to really get through it is to look for the bits of hope in your community.”
“I just want to shout out all the grassroots organizations and individuals that have been doing the hard work on the ground for a long time, and maybe not getting, you know, the airtime or the attention that they should. This feels like there is this moment to spotlight their work,” Chan said. “We’ve all got our parts to play. So us as storytellers, we put out the film which I hope has a message that resonates.”