Arriving both in theaters and on Disney+ this week (the latter via an additional Premier Access charge), Raya and the Last Dragon marks the 59th film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, the film is set in the mythical land of Kumandra, during a dark time when a monstrous force that once took all the dragons has returned, turning anyone it touches into stone. The film’s hero, Raya (voiced by Star Wars: The Last Jedi‘s Kelly Marie Tran) is on a quest to save Kumandra that will bring her into contact with one last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Jumanji: The Next Level’s Awkwafina).
Fandom spoke to Tran and directors Don Hall (Moana) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting), writers Qui Nguyen (The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), and producer Osnat Shurer (Moana) about the film’s action-packed approach and the characters that are key to the story.
Raya and the Last Dragon is filled with action set pieces and exciting one-on-one combat and the filmmakers said that was the intention from the beginning. Said Hall, “It was always part of the DNA of the film. It was going to be an epic action-adventure film inspired by the different cultures of Southeast Asia. It gave us an amazing opportunity to double down on those action scenes.” Comparing the approach on Raya to other Disney animated films, which are often musicals, Hall said, “You know, those musical numbers become the stand out scenes… For this film it’s going to be the action scenes.”
As Nguyen put it, “I like to refer to this as our ‘fightsical’ since we didn’t make it a musical.”
Hall noted, of Nguyen, “We were so fortunate to have Qui, who in addition to being an amazing writer, is a martial arts fight choreographer.”
When it came to getting to voice a true action heroine, Tran said, “It was really cool. It was incredible. I have never seen a character like this in a Disney animated film before and to be part of a movie in this genre that is also so action packed, it’s really clear that Disney and everyone involved knew that we were trying to make something different. To be part of a movie that is broadening the idea of what people think of when they hear the word princess and hear the word hero is a really big deal to me. I am so excited to be part of it.”
The Raya team had nothing but love for their star, with Nguyen remarking, “Kelly Marie Tran is not just a wonderful actress but just her as a person, what she represents in the community and in our industry, she’s such an inspiring figure in and of itself. So to combine her with a character we were already developing felt like a perfect fit. She gave Raya such soul, such humor, such complexity and nuance. It was the perfect marriage between character and actor.”
For Tran, a lifelong Disney fan, getting the role was a huge moment. Recalling what it was like to find out they wanted her for the film, Tran said, “Honestly, this experience has been as amazing as I expected it to be. But getting that initial call was a rush of emotion. Immediately, my first thought was ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t think I’d actually get this. Can I do this!?’ I spent so much time wishing and hoping and wanting to be part of this world and then once you’re given that key, you realize you never really thought about how you would do it or what you’d do once you got there. I feel lucky that everyone I’ve worked with has been really welcoming in this experience and guided me through the whole thing. To be part of this world is a big, big honor and big responsibility and knowing how many people want to do this and how few people get to do this, it’s a big deal.”
AN AWKWATIC DRAGON
As for the other title character in Raya and the Last Dragon, Awkwafina of course has a very distinct comedic style and voice and Estrada noted, “Awkwafina was actually one of the first people to be attached to the project. Don, Qui, and I came a little bit after she had been cast. Obviously we could not have been happier to be working with her because she really brought her A game and made Sisu hilarious but also a really sensitive and grounded water dragon.”
Estrada added, “The cool thing about Disney Animation is that it really allows for a collaboration between the filmmakers and the actors. It’s not like a live action shoot where you have a period of shooting, then you edit it and that’s your movie. This goes on for years. We were working with Awkwafina for about a year and a half. That means we were able to record some of her scenes. She gets to see the work that some of our animators, storyboard artists and everyone on our crew is doing. Then we bring all those recordings back to us with the studio. We have video reference for them. Then the animators who are animating the scenes, and the modelers who are modeling the characters still, start to see things that she does, mannerisms, the way that she speaks. Qui starts incorporating her very specific speech pattern, and then all of a sudden you bring it all back to Awkwafina and she’s like ‘Whoa, that’s really starting to sound, feel and act like me’ and you bring it all back to that and that goes on for a long, long time. So we really created it with her.”
Lim also joined Raya after Awkwafina was cast and recalled, “When I walked into the story room on my first day there, there was this large drawing of Sisu standing kind of askew and kind of wonky. And I was like ‘That looks like Awkwafina’ and they said, ‘That’s 100% her.’ Because not everybody has a voice that lends itself to animation. So Sisu, she had a lot of heavy lifting to do. We’re talking about an eastern, water-based dragon, a creature that most of the world has no idea about. She has an off-beat, quirky sense of humor, she’s larger than life. All of those things are Awkwafina, but underneath that there’s also a wisdom that drives that humor. She’s not funny for the sake of being funny. She’s a funny that sees the best in humans and is this vulnerable, engaging presence. Awkwafina really has the range and skill to be able to bring that emotionality to Sisu when it was needed. I think all those reasons made it the perfect marriage between the dragon and Awkwafina.”
Raya’s nemesis in the film is Namaari (voiced by Captain Marvel‘s Gemma Chan), with the two having once bonded when they were younger, only for a betrayal to lead them to become enemies.
Namaari stands out as a rather different, nuanced antagonist than one might expect, and Shurer noted, “There was a moment where Namaari was a little more of a typical bad guy and we kept getting challenged and challenging ourselves to go deeper and what we could find more in this relationship. One of the things we thought about was their backstory. For me, it’s almost like when you were a teenager and you met another kid and they loved the same obscure band you do and you’re friends forever. That connection. That’s what we were going with. They have this complex backstory and in a sense, they’re two sides of the same coin. Having grown up swapping homes they might have come out differently.”
Said Tran, of the Raya/Namaari dynamic, “I think in real life we don’t really have evil and good in a very clear, divided way. I think we have people who all believe they’re trying to do good who might just not see the world the same way or might not have been raised in the same circumstances and have different ways of perceiving the world. They did a really good job with that relationship between Raya and Namaari and how they both decided what type of person the other person was a long time ago. And then to see them again, years later, and see that they’re starting to doubt those biases, I think it’s a really cool dynamic and hopefully makes people start to doubt their own biases against certain people. They have this complex, nuanced relationship between them.”
Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access on March 5.