“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a fantasy film about the mythical land of Kumandra, and one warrior’s journey to save her people by finding the last dragon. Prior to the films theatrical and premium streaming release on March 5, the cast and creators of the film came together on Zoom to discuss the cultural inspiration for the film, the importance of representation of Asian American’s on screen, and more.
Participating in the discussion was the film’s writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lin, producer Osnat Shurer, directors Carlos Lopez Estrada and Don Hall, Thalia Tran (little Noi), Izaac Wang (Boun), Benedict Wong (Tong), Sandra Oh (Virana), Daniel Dae Kim (Chief Benja), Gemma Chen (Namaari), Awkwafina (Sisu) and Kelly Marie Tran (Raya).
The conversation began by addressing the challenges of creating this movie remotely in over 400 Disney team members’ and actor’s homes.
Daniel Dae Kim: [Chief Benja] is someone I aspire to be and it’s nice when you can take a lot of pride in the person that you’re playing. It was amazing to record from home … although it wasn’t without hiccups. … One of my very first sessions, I recorded for an hour, we did some great stuff and at the end of the hour we were supposed to upload our packets, and I realized I had recorded none of that past hour.
Kelly Marie Tran: Honestly, all of the credit has to go to the story team, the editing team and all of the incredible team behind the movie. All of the actors, at least in my experience, we’re all isolated, recording by ourselves and to have seen the movie now totally finished and to see all of the chemistry that all of these incredible characters have, it says a lot about the expertise of Disney Animation and the incredible talent working behind this movie.
The creative team behind the film discussed the cultural relevance of the film, and the importance of getting the right cast.
Carlos López Estrada: The connection that all of the actors have with the material and with the characters has been so special. We had teary conversations with all of [the cast] about what the characters and what the story meant to you. And you don’t get to see that very often, to have a group of people that really believe in this movie and what it represents. That just moved us and every single working on the movie; it was beautiful.
Qui Nguyen: I think we’re all quite aware of what a kind of movie like this with heroes that look like this will mean to so many kids and families out there, and to have such A-class group of actors to be representatives of that to so many kids is such a dream come true, not just for us as filmmakers, but, honestly, for the community.
Finally, an important element to the conversation was the vision behind the land of Kumandra, whose culture is inspired by many countries of Southeast Asia, a region rarely shone on screen.
Izaac Wang: It’s pretty crazy to think that all 450 people who worked on this movie, and they just stuffed a bunch of different cultures into this single movie. It’s amazing to see all of the things that are included in this movie, including the food and the some of the weapons that you see, for example Kali sticks that I saw that stood out to me. And a bunch of other things that I can’t even name because I’ve been centered around a couple of cultures my whole life and just to see all of these different cultures is really amazing to me.
Awkwafina: I first saw the first clip that was put together at D23 and I was a little confused because I thought it was a live-action movie because it looked so realistic: the rain, everything…. You realize all that really goes into this, and we’re recording simultaneously as it’s being animated. And when I first saw the human version of Sisu, I was like, “OK, alright … That’s me!”… Those nuances are very trippy and very mindful.
Adele Lim: It was so exciting to be able to celebrate the Eastern dragon. We realized that this was something that most of the world was not familiar with: in Southeast Asia they are referred to as “Nagas,” they’re water deities, and they bring such great auspiciousness. So it’s very different from the Western dragon that is winged and fire-breathing and something you have to destroy and take down. You also love the symbology of … a zany, optic, crazy creature voiced by Awkwafina who is vulnerable and needs to be protected…. At the heart of our movie, is this beautiful friendship between Raya and Sisu, and it’s so rare that we get a major Hollywood movie with female friendship at the heart of it.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be available Friday, March 5 in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premium for $29.99.