[Interview] ‘RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON’ Makes Way For A New Heroine

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is set in a fantasy world, but reflects many of today’s real world struggles, dealing with broken people from fractured lands, lacking trust in each other, who are forced to come together to defeat a growing evil. It’s also a brilliant, powerful coming-of-age journey for the titular young woman (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and her furry sidekick (voiced by Awkwafina), the last dragon Sisu, who hope to reunite humanity by reassembling a broken gem. And their grand, epic adventure is nothing short of inspiring and moving.

Raya might not look like, or fit the traditional mold of a Disney princess, but she very much embodies characteristics and traits of those who’ve come before her, especially when it comes to representing important figures in Southeast Asian mythology. Co-screenwriter Adele Lim explains,

“In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors. And leaders of their realms. And also, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water. In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. It’s sort of within a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia. We knew it was one of those threads that would really resonate within the film.”

Lim and co-screenwriter Qui Nguyen pulled inspiration from very personal sources when crafting Raya. He elucidates,

In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung sisters. They’re like 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 this country – and just to have that kind of fighting spirit. And also, just the kind of 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.”

Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) and Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON. © 2020 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Paralleling Raya’s journey of discovery is Sisu, the mythical, mystical, shape-shifting dragon she employs for help in reunifying the Dragon Gem. Hall mentions her inclusion spotlights the theme of trust.

For us, it was important to show the different sides of trust in terms of Sisu trusting in people completely. 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. It was important for us to push on it, but have Sisu be unwavering in her ability and belief in trust.”

Nguyen expands,

Working for Disney, part of what we do is that we deal in magic. Right now, 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. It’s a really important message for the world to have and see.”

Estrada adds,

“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. 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 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.”

Lim says,

“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. 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.”

Unlike Disney Princesses from the past, don’t look for Raya to break out in song. Producer Osnat Shurer says,

The characters aren’t singing in the movie, but there is a lot of music. Our composer, James Newton Howard, did a lot of research and worked with musicians from the region as well to find the specific instrumentation. He was telling a story as a good composer does in music and lifting us as we need lifting, and building the emotion.”

Raya and Sisu aren’t the only heroines in this glorious animated feature. There’s a pint-sized, feisty 2-year-old toddler Little Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) that, you could say, steals the show. She’s a baby con artist, who roams the night market of Talon with her catfishing monkey squad, the Ongis, looking for their next mark. Hall says the character evolved from their original drafts.

When we were playing around with this story early on, when Carlos, Qui and I came on, we definitely wanted representation from each of the lands. 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.  It felt like we needed a human representative from the land of Talon. I was looking at some vis dev of Little Noi and thought it would be funny if she was a little con baby from Talon and that the Ongis were sort of her crew.” 

Estrada adds,

“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, but if you get to understand her story, you’ll realize 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.”

He continues,

“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 tough or 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. [It’s] not until this group of people of complete different backgrounds and ideologies are 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’s about.”

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets, at the same time as it is released in select theaters on March 5. 

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.