Raya and the Last Dragon cast and crew on Southeast Asian influence and characters

The last film to be released by Walt Disney Animation Studios was Frozen II back in November 2019. It would be over a year later until we would see another film from the studio with Raya and the Last Dragon. The new animated film has Southeast Asian influence and follows a young woman on a journey to save her land from a darkness that has turned her people into stone. Viewers now have a chance to catch the animated film in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

One of the main characters is Sisu, a dragon that has the power to help stop the darkness from spreading. She is voiced by Awkwafina, who adds plenty of humor and heart to the film. The actress was very impressed with the film’s CG and shares her thoughts on the film’s animation quality.

“I’m going to be honest,” Awkwafina said during a recent press conference. “I saw the first clip that was put together at D23, and I was a little confused because I was like, ‘Is this a live-action movie? And let me get my agent on the phone.’ Because it looked so realistic, the rain, and everything. We would come in. We’d do the job. One Croc on, and that’s what we’re doing, but then you realize, all that really goes into this, and we’re recording kind of simultaneously as it’s being animated. So when I first saw the human version of Sisu, I was like, ‘Okay, all right, that’s me.’ I’m [don’t] like to show off or anything like that. That looks like me. And so, those nuances are very, very trippy and very, very mind-blowing.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, and they have incorporated different Southeast Asian cultures into the film.

“I think it’s important to say that Kumandra is entirely a fantasy universe,” Lim said. “It’s just the central inspiration is Southeast Asia. And rather than the simpler task of having one Southeast Asian country being reflected in one Kumandran land, to Disney’s credit, they really, really went deeper to find the underlying inspirations and core and threads that ran through so many of the communities. And the wonderful thing is what we all found, first of all, in all Southeast Asian countries and cultures there’s such a strong spirit of community.”

Like cultures in real life, the writers translated that into a story that features different cultures.

“If you look at even one country, like the country I grew up in, Malaysia, there are so many races, cultures, religions,” Lim said. “So many ways for us to view each other as the enemy or view each other as the other. But when you truly look at what makes our culture amazing and sings, whether it’s our arts or our food, the best street food in the world, it is because of all these different elements really coming together and creating something transcendent.”

With a film with so many Southeast Asian influences, the studio had many Southeast Asian artists on board.

“So the filmmakers getting to that and wanting to tell the story of a divided world and seeing both sides of that aspect used all those inspirations to be able to tell the greater arc of the story,” Lim continued. “I wanted to say with all the details whether it’s Raya’s sword, that wavy Keris dagger, or the shadow puppets used, or even the arts. All of these things, Qui and I, who grew up in Southeast Asian households know. It was also made with so many Southeast Asian artists. Whether it’s in the story team, our visual arts department, animation, people who are already there, not brought together for Raya, but who were already being brought out by Disney, who are able to add in all these different details at different levels of the script. Things that you don’t necessarily glean from a seminar or learning or reading about but things that you feel in your DNA. So hopefully, even if you know nothing about Southeast Asia, you’re really able to feel that love and that attention at every layer of our film.”

Raya and the Last Dragon was Nguyen’s way of creating his own Arthurian legend with Southeast Asian fantasies. And with a background in martial arts, he also added details in the martial arts in the film.

“It is a fantasy, and I always equate it to like the Arthurian legend or ‘Dungeons and Dragons,’ Nguyen said. “These Western fantasies are based on a mishmash of Western cultures. This is our chance to kind of create our Excalibur and our Arthurian legend. And so it was something to celebrate a culture that Adele and I grew up in and to make legendary heroes that our kids can aspire to.”

“Just a quick add, Qui Nguyen, who is a martial arts expert, brought in all the amazing details of Southeast Asian action fighting styles,” Lim added.

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has a friendship with Namaari (Gemma Chan) as a child, but their paths have diverged. The two actresses talk about their characters’ similarities and how these two characters are willing to risk a lot for their community.

“I just love the fact that they have this kind of love/hate dynamic,” Chan said. “But at their core, they have so much in common. I love the fact that Namaari has this real kind of quite aggressive exterior, but underneath it all, she’s got this huge heart, and she has this real love for dragons that’s been there since childhood. I love that first scene where she locks eyes with Sisu, and kind of everything just falls away. It’s as if she’s become a child again. I love that, and that was kind of my way into her, really. We’ve all had those people in our lives that we have a love-hate relationship with, and I think it is such a fine line. I love the fact that Namaari and Raya have had that connection since childhood. And they’re rivals but they also have a lot in common.”

“I absolutely agree,” Tran said. “I think setting up these characters as kids and just seeing 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 because, just like Gemma was saying earlier, the idea that we have these two characters that could have switched places at one point. When I really think about my life when things like that have happened to me, 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 just how incredibly, by the end of the story, Raya and Namaari are then suddenly willing to step outside of themselves. They risk everything for this idea of community, this idea of what their relationship could have been this entire time. It’s really, really inspiring. It’s something that I want to do in my own life. But their relationship in this movie is probably one of my favorites, just because of how complicated it is. And, yeah, just a big Gemma fangirl over here.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is now available on Disney+ Premier Access. It will be available to everyone with Disney+ on June 4, 2021.

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John Nguyen
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