Raya And The Last Dragon: The power of Disney’s first South-East Asian princess
Disney makes history with it latest animation, the first movie in its 90-year history to star a South-East Asian heroine. Raya And The Last Dragon follows the titular Raya, voiced by Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran, as she must track down a legendary last dragon to restore her fractured land and its divided people.
The film is set in a fictional realm known as Kumandra, a fantasy land that’s home to five tribes – each of which has its own distinct culture, inspired by different places in South-East Asia. It is the first time Disney has set a movie in that part of the world – a region home to 11 countries and 673 million people – and directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada said that fact brought with it a great deal of of responsibility.
“It was definitely something that was top of mind and something we focused on quite a bit,” Hall says. “Going back to the beginnings of it, we hadn’t really explored – at least to my knowledge – South-East Asia as a cast of characters or even as a region, so that was very exciting and enticing.
“Obviously, it came with responsibility to do it right, and that required multiple research trips to the various regions because it is not just one country, it’s many, and we were really immersing ourselves and our crew in many different cultures.
“We were also consulting our South-East Asian story trust, which was an Avengers-like team brought together to help this movie out from all kinds of different backgrounds, from musicians to anthropologists and cultural anthropologists and dancers, so it was a wonderful collaboration which really helped us put this film up on screen and do it the right way.”
Indeed the film incorporates multiple nods to different parts of the region. Raya wears a hat that resembles the Salakot – traditional headgear in the Philippines – while her fighting technique is inspired by Silat – a traditional martial arts form practiced commonly in Malaysia and Indonesia. “Kumandra felt like a world I hadn’t been to or seen,” Hall adds, “from all the cultural references from all the different cultures of South-East Asia, but also the opportunity to visit five different lands in the course of a movie.
“It reminded me early on of Star Wars movies, where you get to see different planets and different topography and different lands, all in the course of one movie. That was the stuff that really inspired me, getting to go to a place I’d never been to before.”
Lopez Estrada nods. “Also just thematically, this idea of a world that is fractured, a world that is broken, and then people having to come together in order to fix it, it felt so timely when we first started working on it, and it still does now, more than ever,” he adds.
The filmmakers were also committed to taking inspiration from Asian action films, and making high-octane fight scenes – which are not usually a staple of Disney animation – a key part of the storytelling. “We knew we wanted to draw heavily on action films from South-East Asia and Asian cinema in general,” Hall says, “but it was important for us that they all have a distinct flavour, and move the characters and the story forward.
“If you look at the three particular fights that happen in the film between Namaari [Raya’s nemesis, voiced by Gemma Chan] and Raya, they each had a different purpose in the story, and were choreographed differently to bring out the story points we were making. And so we were super excited to be able to explore the action genre in animation, but it was also important for us develop character and push characters and have it earn its place in the story as well.”
As well as paying tribute to Asian cinema, it was also imperative that the movie was cast with Asian and Asian American actors, including Awkwafina, who voices the dragon Sisu, Sandra Oh, who voices chief of the Fang Lands, Virana, and Daniel Dae Kim, who voices Raya’s father, Benja. “It was essential,” Lopez Estrada says. “And we could not have been luckier with the cast that we have.
“It’s like every single person embodied the movie and the characters in a really, really inspiring way, like the way they use the role in the movie to advocate for their communities and what it represents to each of them, how they connected to the characters, it was really special. You’re lucky when you have an actor connecting to a role. But I think it just meant so much to each of them to be a part of this and to be bringing this story to life. It was a real treat to see the life they breathe into the movie.”
Tran, 32, who is best known for her role as Rose Tico in the Star Wars movies, seemed like a perfect fit for a different kind of Disney heroine. “Something we were all very excited about was this idea of making a movie that felt iconically and traditionally Disney in every sense – it has the magic, it has the optimism that I feel is imbued in everything the studio does, but also trying to see how much we can push it into new territory,” Hall says. “And I think the character of Raya is a perfect example of that.
“She’s technically a princess. She is the daughter of the chief of the Heart lands. But she’s not really defined by that label and she’s not really fitting in that box of what we traditionally think about the Disney princess. She is a warrior, she is a badass, and that really exemplifies the path we wanted to take. Definitely paying homage to all of the films and heroines that have come before, but also just trying to take this woman to a new, exciting place.”
Raya And The Last Dragon is available now on DVD and Blu-ray and is available to all Disney+ subscribers for no additional cost.