RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is the latest Feature Film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and this astonishing-looking Fantasy Adventure is set in the world of Kumandra, a place where dragons and humans once co-existed together. After monsters known as the Druun surfaced, dragons sacrificed their lives almost becoming extinct. A young warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is tasked with locating the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) to stop the Druun from destroying humanity. However, zany Sisu alone might not be enough and Raya and her enemies, including Namaari (Gemma Chan), must learn to overcome their differences and trust one another to accomplish this.
With production taking place over the Pandemic, its Cast and Crew of 450 people – many who worked from home – RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a mystical journey that explores division and the importance of trust and community. Featuring a predominantly Asian Principal Voice Cast, the Film arrives at a time where some of its sentiments echo what the Asian community is be experiencing as we heal from a divide in the aftermath of the Pandemic.
See the Trailer:
We were thrilled to join the Global Press Conference for RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON and joining us were:
Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada – Directors
Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim – Writers
Osnat Shurer – Producer
Kelly Marie Tran – Raya
Awkwafina – Sisu
Gemma Chan – Namaari
Sandra Oh – Virana, Namaari‘s mother
Daniel Dae Kim – Chief Benja, Raya‘s father
Benedict Wong – Tong, a giant
Izaac Wang – Boun, a ten-year-old Entrepreneur
Thalia Tran – Little Noi, a toddler Ongi (a bit like a money, a bit like a catfish)
Moderating was Television Personality Jeannie Mai.
The symbology of dragons are very present in the Film and we learn that the Eastern Dragon is very different from common perception.
Lim: “It was so exciting to celebrate the Eastern Dragon and we realized this was something most of the world was not familiar with. In East Asia they are referred to as Nāgas , they’re water deities who bring auspiciousness, so it’s very different from the Western Dragon who’s winged and fire-breathing, something you have to destroy and take-down. We love this symbology in our Movie because Raya thinks she’s bringing forth this Water Dragon thinking she can just snap her fingers and solve all the problems in the world. Instead, what she finds is this crazy, zany creature voiced by Awkwafina, and she’s vulnerable and needs to be protected. She’s just quirky and always sees the good in people and Raya as a warrior, thinks this is nuts. It’s so rare we get a Hollywood movie with a special female friendship at the heart of it. The humour here comes from seeing the best in people, people who Raya thought were her enemies, people who’ve let you down. It was the Dragon who could see that potential and it inspires everyone to come together and get past it.”.
The younger Cast members Isaac Wang and ThaliaTrantalk about the Film’s Southeast Asian family values.
Wang: “It’s pretty crazy to think 450 people working on this Movie and they just stuffed a bunch of cultures into this Movie. It’s amazing to see all the things that are included from the food to the weapons that you see. I’ve been centered around only a couple cultures my whole life, so to see all these cultures is really amazing to me.”.
Tran (Thalia): “Playing Noi is like nothing I’ve ever done before. She doesn’t use English words, she speaks in her own language but that connection she has with her gang of Ongis (like catfish-monkeys), Tong, Raya and the whole gang, that sense of camaraderie and the sense of family, that is something I related to. Growing up in a Vietnamese family, I learned that family always comes first, from traditions to every day life, especially now in quarantine where I’m with my family all the time. It’s something that definitely clicked with me as I know what it feels like. For her to be so young and have her family be turned to stone by the Druun, and her to have to raise herself with the Ongis, that sense of strength I feel is something very common in Southeast Asian families, especially because it’s something very valued in terms of independence. There’s a lot about Noi even though she can’t speak words, people still can connect with.”.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON explores a central theme of female friendship. Gemma Chan and Kelly Marie Tran comment on their characters’ rivalry and love-hate relationship.
Chan: “I love that they have this love-hate dynamic, but at the core they have so much in common. I love that Namaari has this aggressive exterior but underneath it all, she’s got this huge heart. She has this love for dragons that’s really been there since childhood and I really love that first scene where she locks eyes with Sisu. It’s as if she’s become a child again. I love that and that was my way into her really. We’ve all got people in our lives we’ve got a love-hate relationship with and I think it’s such a fine line. I love that Namaari and Raya have had that connection since childhood.”.
“It shows as children when we’re young we don’t inherently hate each other. It’s learned whether it comes through as something that’s parental, a family influence or a particular tribe. Those things are learned, but they can be unlearned. Kids get on and that’s something to take away from the Movie.”.
Tran (Kelly Marie): “Setting-up these characters as kids and seeing how authentically they can connect at a young age, and then cutting-forward and seeing the way they’ve been divided, it’s really incredible. We have this idea that the two characters switch places at one point. When I really think about it in 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 from someone you see as an enemy. Incredibly by the end of the story, Raya and Namaari are willing to step outside of themselves and risk everything for this idea of community and what their relationship could have been all this time. It’s really inspiring and something I want to do in my own life. Their relationship in this Movie is one of my favourites because of how complicated it is.”.
Awkwafina comments on her comedic influences for the scene-stealing role of Sisu.
Awkwafina: “Genie was one of my favourite characters from my childhood so maybe there was a subconscious thing. The real beauty here is when I was approached to play Sisu and hear what her vibe was, I think I was given a chance to add my own voice to it and simultaneously build her up with the Directors who were always willing to explore and play. I think she was really born out of that process. The really cool thing about Sisu is that she was part my voice.”.
The Film also explores the father-daughter relationship between Chief Benja and Raya. The former is the Chief of Kumandra‘s heartland and Raya in line to be a ruler next.
Tran(Kelly Marie): “Benja and Raya are so reminiscent of the relationship between me and my own father – that reverence for your elders, how important family is and the way he bestows upon Raya all these incredible ideas at such a young age. Gosh, I cried in so many scenes with Benja.”.
Kim: “I really give a lot of credit to Don, Carlos and the Producing Team because the pitfall of the character is that he can be a Centurion Oratour, the kind of King who’s going to dictate the way everything is. But they kept pushing me to say ‘No, you have a really intimate, loving relationship with your daughter. Take it down, make it more intimate’, and it triggered something different in me and led me to finding that relationship. The second thing is Kelly, I was following you in the news and knew all the things you were about and these were characteristics I could relate to and connect to. It wasn’t just about our roles as characters, but knowing who you were as a person and that I could connect to that. When I watched the Film, I felt that we had that connection even though we weren’t in that booth together. It’s a real testament to your performance.”.
Aside from stunning lifelike animation, the Martial Arts in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is phenomenal. The Film’s two DirectorsDon Hall and Carlos López Estrada speak to this.
Hall: “We were fortunate the Martial Arts Coordinator also happened to be one of the Writers. We leaned on Qui quite a bit. There was one day he brought into the studio – how he got it past Security I don’t know – he brought a giant bag of weapons in to show us he was a legit Martial Arts Choreographer, which we didn’t doubt. But I think after seeing that bag of weapons, we probably treated him a little better after that too!
Estrada: “Just so that this doesn’t become a headline, I will back you up and say that they were stage weapons. The entire Crew, it was really special for them to have Qui down the hall. The Story Artists, the Animators, the vista of people, could just knock on his door and just say ‘Hey, check this move out, does this make sense?’ and Qui would give them links and bring them movies, do some in-office demonstrations. To have that direct access to someone who’s so knowledgeable in that region is invaluable and you really see that in the fights, they feel so different and so unique.”.
Nguyen: “A lot of credit goes to Maggie Macdonald who choreographed a lot of our reference fights and it was important for me to bring on a female Fight Choreographer. She brought on a female team of fighters to do the references because of our two leads are Raya and Namaari. The way a female body moves is just different and we had something that was really utilizing speed, strength and agility. You often see in movies like this Kung-Fu or Karate. It’s nice to see Southeast Asian Martial Arts shown in this way.”.
A point this Film is making is one about representation. The Cast is asked about the importance of this.
Oh: “It’s difficult because this was made in COVID times and the way Animation is made, you don’t get to meet everyone all the Directors do. I think it’s really seeing how Animation has moved on for someone like myself growing-up in the ’70s and ’80s and we didn’t really see anything. I feel like that has been the same way representation wise for a really long time. I actually am glad I’m still alive to be a part of this type of screen (she refers to the grid of predominantly Asian faces on the Zoom call grid) where you get to see the type of people who have made it. In that way it’s very exciting. It’s exciting to hear what Isaac and Thalia have to say and give them an opportunity to have their voices heard. Especially for the much younger generation for them to have a space to be heard. It’s an exhilarating change for someone like me to be a part of and witness.
Tran (Thalia): “We owe it all to people like you”.
We are faced with news of some horrific treatment the Asian community has faced subsequent to the Pandemic. The Cast talks about RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON‘s place in the world today.
Oh: “I was moved by the theme and ending of the story, which ultimately is about trust and how I myself am struggling with that. Art is here to pose questions and to potentially suggest possibility. And I think even if we start with that question in one’s self, ‘Who do I trust? How can I trust? Can I trust that other side? Can I trust that other side when it seems it’s very proof-positive that this is what has been done to me?’. As the theme of the story goes, we cannot continue without this open-heartedness. And the truth I think Raya learns is that you just have to keep having your heart broken again and again just to keep it open. Hate is not finished by hate, it is only won over by love. We have to each individually and as a large community – societally – move towards this because all of us are on the same boat. 2020 in all its destructiveness, if one can see opportunity to somehow it also has broken all our hearts open. So what can we do with all of that?”.
Hall: 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. I think it emboldened us to continue forward as I felt we had something to say. If this Film can just teach one person to be brave enough to trust someone, then we’ve done what we set-out to do.
Benedict Wong, who came dressed like his fumbling giant character, Tong, tells us about his experience watching the Film with his son.
Wong: “It was the first time we actually sat down and watched the Film entirely all the way through. Afterwards, he turned, gave me a hug and said ‘I trust you, Daddy’. We need this to unite. We are living through remnants of hate that have permeated through the world and again it’s very timely with our beautiful Film that shows that love can lead the way.”.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON arrives on Disney+ with Premier Access and in theatres Friday, March 5, 2021.