[Interview] The Timelessness of ‘RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON’ is Timely

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

One of the best things about Disney’s animated films is that it’s reflective of the notion that art that has the power to change communities and the culture at large. Though directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON had been conceived and produced years prior to the current unrest in the world, it perfectly mirrors the struggles the audience is having to deal with. This is something many of the cast and crew were hard-pressed to ignore at the film’s recent press conference.

In the film, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is tasked to pick up her father, Heart Chief Benja’s (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), hopeful quest to unite the broken lands that make up the mythical region, Kumandra. The citizens have splintered into their own heavily guarded regions, Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine, and Talon and with them, the leaders have taken with them parts of a mystical gem Raya wants to unite in order to save everyone from a growing threat – the very metaphorically laden beast, The Druun.

Sandra Oh, who plays Fang Chief Virana, a leader who is reticent towards reunification, says that she was moved by the film’s themes which primarily deals with everyone’s struggles with trust.

“Art is here to pose questions and to potentially suggest possibility. The theme of the story, which is we cannot go on as a society, the world cannot continue, without this openheartedness. The truth Raya, and also Namaari learn, is that you have to be willing to have your heart broken again and again and again just to keep it open. We know hate is not finished by hate. It is only won over by love.  

So, we have to each, individually, and then hopefully as a community and then large community, societally move towards that way because all of us are in the same boat. It’s a beautiful opportunity, 2020, in all its destructiveness, in all its change, if one can see it as an opportunity that somehow has also broken all our hearts open. So, what can we do with that?”

Though the timeliness of this tale is evident, Hall said there were moments that led them to reflect on what was happening in the real world that simultaneously made it into their fantasy world.

“There were certainly moments during the making of the film where we were very aware of how this film, which was meant to be timeless, was unbelievably timely. It emboldened us to continue forward because we felt like we had something to say. 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.”

Co-writer Qui Nguyen added,

“I don’t think we had any idea of how the world would become by the time this movie came out – especially when it comes to the injustices to the Asian American community right now. There have been some times where in the last 365 days there’s been a lot of negative imagery and words said about Asians. It’s hard not to appreciate that this movie’s coming out and-and kind of giving a counterpoint and just telling a positive story that just celebrates Asian American skin and Asian American lives, and Asian American people.

Because with any group that’s underrepresented, when you only see stories where you’re seen as the bad guy or a thug or what have you, it starts to paint a very negative picture of you for those who don’t ever get to know you, who never get to be in the room with you. Step one is representation and really being out there, both behind and in front of the camera, with the stories we tell and then just being out there, so we can acknowledge that this world is all of us, not just any one of us. Without that, I don’t know how we get better.”

Kim further elucidates,

“We can’t undervalue the power of the fact that this is a Disney movie and the people that will be watching this movie by and large are families, parents with their children, seeing this kind of representation, and understanding what is possible. And people like Izaac (Wang) and Thalia (Tran) have the space to perform in these kinds of projects for maybe the first time in history to this degree.

I’m also thinking about all the children who will be seeing Raya for the first time and seeing an Asian strong female who kicks ass and becomes a queen. She’s on the path to becoming a ruler and she’s being groomed by her father to do that in a loving relationship. All of these things are such a positive portrayal. It’s exposure that brings understanding and that understanding is what changes perception. What this movie does on the scale of those things cannot be underestimated.”

Estrada says,

“The most powerful thing that I think film can accomplish is it can give someone an opportunity to experience life through someone else’s eyes, someone who gives you a perspective that you wouldn’t have. And RAYA does that in a way that’s very optimistic, very hopeful. Through it, we get to learn about cultures that were not our own people, that were not our own problems, and it brought us together in a beautiful way. If we’re able to bring a little bit of that light and a little bit of that empathy to people, we would. We’re just feeling so proud of this movie, this group of people that we’re working with, the time when it’s coming out. We feel like we’re adding something really valuable to a really important conversation.”

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and Namaari (Gemma Chan) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Benedict Wong, who plays Spine Chief Tong, watched the film with his child.

“It was the first time we’d actually sat and watched the film entirely, all the way through. The [themes] about being trusted….my son turned around and gave me a big hug and said, “I trust you, Daddy.” This is it. We need this to unite. Our kids when they look at each other, innocence is there. They see through color and things need to be unlearned. Especially in America, and it ripples all over the world, we are living through the remnants of this kind of hate that has permeated through the world. It’s very timely with our beautiful film showing us that love can really lead the way.”

Co-writer Adele Lim says,

“Kumandra is an entirely fantastical, fictional land, but it was very important to the filmmakers that the troubles that that land faces and the journey that Raya goes on, the struggles she faces, are rooted very much in the real world; the problems that we’re facing in terms of division. It was particularly important that the way Raya goes about trying to solve this is also reflected in reality. It is not an easy thing. It is not just an easy byword that we’re just going to say the word “trust” and magically hope it comes together. That it is something that you keep doing, even though you lose everything that’s important to you, even though you were betrayed, even though your heart is broken. That we have to keep reaching out because it is the only way we are going to be able to move forward in this world together.

Particularly, with everything that’s been happening in this last year, the violence towards Asian Americans, seeing each other as the other, words have power and words have the power to paint people in a different light. They have the power to bring us together. Hopefully, this movie is our word, and our message to the world of let’s pull together.”

Tran felt a cathartic sense of relief being able to play a young woman who is allowed to feel her anger.

“There’s a moment for me specifically with Raya when, just towards the end of the movie, she gets to feel justifiably and absolutely unapologetically angry. For me, seeing a young woman in a movie like this just get to feel that righteous anger and then recognizing that the thing that pulls her out of it is seeing her friends and how they’re helping other people just feels so real to me.

Seeing these attacks happening over and over and over consistently, you do get to that place sometimes where you feel like, “Oh, this is a very broken world and I’m feeling a lot of things right now.” For me, recognizing that moment felt so grounded in reality because, you can’t just say, “Trust, unity, like, yay, it’s going to be fine.” Acknowledging that there’s a lot of pain that happens there and the only way to really get through it is to look for the bits of hope in your community. I’m grateful to be making a movie with these characters who are also trying to fight for a world that feels impossible and hopeless sometimes.”

Chan, who plays Raya’s adversarial rival Namaari, says,

“We’re talking about everything that’s going on at the moment and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with hopelessness and anger. Where I get my hope from is that if you look for the helpers, there are helpers. There are people that have been helping and 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 the airtime or the attention that they should.

Now it feels like there is this moment to spotlight their work because they’re already doing that. They’re already building these kind of cross-community alliances that we need and I feel so grateful that they are there doing the hard work on the ground.  We’ve all got our part to play. So, us, the storytellers, we put out our film, which I hope has a message that resonates, and then we also have amazing people within our communities who are doing that work today.”

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.