Completed entirely during lockdown, the creative team behind Disney’s new animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon were inspired by Southeast Asian culture and mythology to create the fantasy world of Kumandra, where long ago humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity.
Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and unite its divided people.
Raya’s journey takes her through the five lands of Kumandra, which form the shape of a dragon: Heart, Raya’s home, a prosperous land filled with peace and magic; Fang, a powerful, thriving land surrounded by water; Spine, an insular, remote land whose people distrust outsiders; Talon, the crossroads of the five lands and a bustling marketplace; and Tail, a far-flung, desert land that is becoming more isolated as water recedes.
We spoke with the creative team behind Disney’s latest family feature – Producer Osnat Shurer, Co-Directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, Co-Writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen.
Where does the story of Raya and the Last Dragon begin?
Osnat Shurer: Everything has been taken away from Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran). She’s totally on her own. She’s got nothing left save for her father’s sword, her friend Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and a shard of something that might be magical. She sets out into Kumandra seeking the last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) with the hope of restoring peace to her land. But, along her journey, Raya will learn that it will take more than a dragon to save the world.
Don Hall: This is Raya’s journey of learning to trust, after her trust was so deeply broken when she was a child.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: You can’t really get to unity without trust, and for Raya, it will take trusting a group of strangers if she is ever going to have a united Kumandra.
Raya, dragon Sisu and their nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) are all girls. Does this make Raya and the Last Dragon an entirely woman’s world?
Don Hall: Well, obviously there are male cast members as well. I think that this movie’s being told through the lens of Raya, our main character, who just happens to be a woman. But it’s a world for everybody and a movie for everybody.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: I remember the first time we recorded some of these scenes when Awkwafina’s reaction to the scene where Sisu the dragon, Namaari and Raya all encounter each other and she said, ‘Wow, this feels incredible to have these three really strong female characters all interacting, and the entire scene is just them.’ So, I think we’re happy to bring these characters to life, and we’ve had so much incredible help in doing it.
Osnat Shurer: I would add that it’s a story about trust; a story about people doing what’s needed to come together. And it’s not exactly incidental what gender they are, but they’re working for something so much greater. In addition, we have Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong) and Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang) in the story, together with Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Day Kim) who is the key behind the whole motivation of the entire story. So, we actually see it as a world that more reflects the world we live in, and if we look in the crowds and among the guards, you will always see about a 50-50 split, which is more similar to the world we all live in. I’m really proud of our team for that.
Were the writers inspired by other Disney princesses or characters within Southeast Asian folklore?
Adele Lim: I don’t think there were specific characters within Southeast Asian mythology. But in Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders, warriors and leaders of their realms. Plus, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water. In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah and stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. So, it’s within a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia so we knew it was one of those threads that would really resonate within the film.
Qui Nguyen: In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung sisters, these famous Vietnamese warriors that I definitely thought of. Without a doubt, I think Adele and I drew inspirations for families from our parents. Specifically for me, from my mom. I know what she had to go through when she came to the US, and just to have that kind of fighting spirit. And also, just the energy that our people have that you don’t always get to display on screen. It was important for us to show the real spirit of Southeast Asia out there.
What made you think of Awkwafina to voice the dragon, Sisu?
Osnat Shurer: When we met Awkwafina we knew, first of all, that she’s an incredible actress with a wide range, and with a very professional and disciplined approach to acting. But Awkwafina fit the dragon that we were looking for – a combination of wisdom, emotion and humour. She brings all those three things together in some magical potion.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: Awkwafina is amazing in this movie. We obviously know her comedic side, and she is hilarious and has improvisational skills like no other. We also saw her dramatic side in The Farewell, which is incredible. But with this movie, she gets to really travel from one end of the spectrum to the other and everything in between. Sisu really gives Awkwafina such a good chance to explore the wackiest of her comedy, and also just the most earnest beautiful, honest acting that had us all in tears. I think it’s really great to see a Disney character that allows an actor to explore that range.
Don Hall: Sisu was written with Awkwafina in mind, and I can’t imagine somebody else as Sisu. Awkwafina is Sisu. Sisu is Awkwafina.
Adele Lim: Awkwafina in person, too, is of many cultures. She’s Asian American but her appeal is global. And we’ve seen that in her past projects and we definitely see that in this. So, in that way, Awkwafina and Sisu have a lot of the same qualities.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: Awkwafina brought so much of herself into the role. She improvised so many of the scenes. She would come up with different takes on jokes, or would just say, ‘Let me just try a few more.’ It really shows. We worked on the character thinking of her, but it was not until she stepped in that booth that she really brought her to life in a way that was really exciting to watch.
Trusting in others is a tough topic to portray in storytelling, as this can lead a character down many paths. So, how did you all dig deep into Sisu, who so willingly believes in the abilities of her siblings and others but has a very hard time believing in herself, while also balancing how she interacts with Raya?
Don Hall: For us, it was important to show the different sides of trust in terms of Sisu trusting in people completely. And how in a world that is as broken as Kumandra, when we pick up the story, that trust can be taken advantage of. But she never loses her belief in the power of trust, and in her belief in human beings. And I think it was important for us to push on it, but have Sisu be unwavering in her ability and belief in trust.
Qui Nguyen: Working for Disney, I think part of what we do is that we deal in magic. I think, right now, the-the world is very broken. This movie has a lot of magic in it, but I think the biggest piece of magic in it is trust. It is the real secret ingredient that will save our fictional world of Kumandra. And it’s a message I think that is really important for the world to have and see.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: A nice texture also to Sisu’s character is that in the movie, she gains the power of shapeshifting, and she’s able to transform into a human. And that allows her to also understand what it feels like to experience the world through our eyes. The distrust and the challenges that we face with each other. And that, I think, brings her just a little bit closer to us and allows her to speak not only from experience and not only from hundreds of years of wisdom, but also just from a different perspective, which is many times something that we lack.
Adele Lim: I think the magical thing about Sisu is that she has that trust and that faith in humanity, even when we don’t deserve it. Even when we betray it. Even when we let each other down again and again. We can feel embittered. We can feel, caught up in our own grudges. But, some creature like Sisu being able to see that sort of divine core within everybody is the thing that inspires everyone. I hope that’s what people come away with when they see Sisu.
Where did the idea for the hilarious baby con artist, Little Noi (Thalia Tran) come from?
Don Hall: When we were playing around with this story early on, we definitely wanted representation from each of our five fantasy lands which make up Kumandra: Tail, Spine, Fang, Heart and Talon. And that’s always been part of the construct of this film. That the characters that become the ensemble are a representative from a specific land. Boun is from Tail. Tong is from Spine and Raya is from Heart etc. I was just looking at some visual development of Little Noi and thought it would be funny if she was a little con baby from Talon. I remember bringing it back to Carlos and Qui and pitching it, thinking it’s a pretty crazy idea and they’re going to shut it down. But they actually embraced it and we ran with it. Actually, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the movie. Every time Little Noi’s on screen, I’m smiling. I just love it.
Carlos Lopez Estrada: I also think it reflects something about the movie that we’re all very proud of, because, yes, Little Noi is an unforgettable character, and yes, it’s very funny, but I think what most drew us to that idea is that it would represent a real struggle in this world. On the surface, she’s a cute little baby that bosses around these fantasy monkeys, the Ongis, but if you get to understand her story, you’ll realise that it actually comes from a really human place. She robs people because she’s an orphan. And she robs people because she doesn’t have a place to sleep or eat. And she hangs out with these monkeys because she doesn’t have anyone else. And I think that’s very reflective of the journey that we go on in this movie. You meet this group of people that, on the surface, appear to be aggressive or violent, and then you get to meet them, and there’s a reason why those people are perceived a certain way, or people have had to adapt to be a certain way.
And not until is this group of people of complete different backgrounds and ideologies forced to be together and forced to coexist that they get to really understand each other and they get to see eye-to-eye and they get to sort of speak the same language, which is really what the movie is about. I think it allows us to talk about something that we really believe that the movie will, hopefully, do to inspire these conversations about what it takes for people from seemingly different backgrounds to come together and work together. And trust each other.
Raya and the Last Dragon releases in Australian cinemas March 4 and on Disney+ with Premier Access March 5