CS Virtual Set Visit: Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon
Ahead of the film’s arrival in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access, ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to take a virtual trip behind the scenes of Walt Disney Animation’s latest fantasy adventure Raya and the Last Dragon, including seeing some new concept art and images that can be viewed in the gallery below!
When reflecting on the film’s three main characters being fleshed-out female characters, director Don Hall does not that “there are male cast members as well” but most importantly believes, alongside director Carlos López Estrada and producer Osnat Shurer, that both the world of the film and the film itself are “for everybody.”
“I remember the first time we were recording some of these scenes, I remember Awkwafina’s reaction to the scene where the dragon, Namaari and Raya all encounter each other outside of Spine,” Estrada recalled. “She was just like, ‘Wow, this feels incredible to have these three really strong female characters all interacting, and the entire scene is just them.’ So I think we’re happy to bring these characters to life, and we’ve had so much incredible help in doing it.”
“I would just add that it’s a story about trust and it’s a story about people doing what’s needed to come together,” Shurer expounded. “And it’s not exactly incidental what gender they are, but they’re working for something so much greater. In addition to that, we have Tong and we have Boun in the story, and we have Benja who is the key behind the whole motivation of the entire story. So we actually see it as a world that more reflects the world that we live in, and if we look in the crowds, and if you look among the guards, you will always see about a 50-50 split, which is more similar to the world we all live in.”
Though expressing that there wasn’t any one source of inspiration from Southeast Asian folklore or past Disney princesses, screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen did note that in many of the region’s cultures, there’s “a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors.”
“In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake,” Lim explained. “So it’s sort of within a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia, so we knew it was one of those threads that would really resonate within the film.”
“In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung sisters,” Nguyen added. “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.”
In looking at the casting of Awkwafina as titular dragon Sisu, Shurer recalled that when they first met with the Golden Globe winner the team knew “she’s an incredible actress with a wide range and with a very professional and disciplined approach to acting” and felt “touched” by another journalist’s comparison of the character and voice work to that of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.
“Awkwafina fit the dragon that we were looking for—some combination of wisdom and emotion and humor,” Shurer warmly explained. “She brings all those three things together in some magical potion.”
“To me, something about Awkwafina that is amazing is that in this movie, particularly, we obviously know her comedic side, and she is hilarious and has improvisational skills like no other,” Estrada added. “We have also seen her dramatic side. We have have seen her in “The Farewell.” We have seen all of the dramatic work that she’s done, which is also incredible. But this movie, she gets to really travel from one end of the spectrum to the other and everything in between. Sisu really gives Awkwafina such a good chance to explore the wackiest of her comedy, and also just the most earnest beautiful, honest acting that had us all in tears. I just think that it’s really great to see a Disney character that allows an actor to explore that range. She brought so much of herself into the role. And you will see it when you see the movie. She improvised so many of the scenes. She would come up with different takes on jokes, or would just say, ‘Let me just try a few more.’ It really shows. We worked on the character thinking of her, but it was not until she stepped in that booth that she really brought her to life in a way that was really exciting to watch.
“I think the Robin Williams comparison is not a bad one, actually,” Hall opined. “It’s hard to imagine another actor performing the role of the Genie in the original Aladdin. It was sort of tailor-made for Robin Williams’ specific gifts. I feel like we did the same thing with Sisu, Sisu was written with Awkwafina in mind, and I can’t imagine somebody else as Sisu.”
“Just to add a little bit to what Don was saying, Awkwafina in person, too, is like of many cultures,” Lim noted. “She’s Asian American but her appeal is global and we’ve seen that in her past projects and we definitely see that in this. So I feel like in that way, Awkwafina and Sisu have a lot of the same qualities.”
Much like recent Pixar hit Soul, the development of the film utilized a team of people knowledgeable in Southeast Asian culture called its Story Trust and in looking back at putting together this group, Shurer called it a “really organic process” as many of the members were met while doing research trips in the appropriate countries and “found many commonalities” with them.
“For example, Doctor Hall, who is our textile expert that we met through the Pacific Asia Museum when we needed to dig into textiles,” Shurer explained. “We had linguists who worked with us. Every name that we put in the movie went through an Indonesian linguist from UCLA who speaks many languages of the region. So it was an organic process where people became a bigger and bigger part, collaborating with us along the way. The script is very deeply a script written by the writers you see here in collaboration with the directors and with our chief creative officer, Jennifer Lee, and our story trust. The cultural in-conversation was going on during the writing of the script and continued to go on throughout the creation of the film, and continues to this day. Some of it just because we’re all buddies and we love to talk to each other, but also, we keep our trust involved as we talk about products that might go out, or additional behind-the-scenes material, things like that. So it’s an ongoing conversation. It grows somehow organically through the specific research needs of the film.”
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be led by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), who will be the first Southeast Asian to lead a Disney animated film. The titular role was originally set to be voiced by Cassie Steele (Rick and Morty), but the filmmakers and studio have chosen to adjust their vision and bring Tran in as the lead star, joining the previously cast Awkwafina (The Farewell), who is starring as a dragon in human form named Sisu.
In addition to Tran and Awkwafina, the cast for the film includes Gemma Chan (Captain Marvel) as Raya’s nemesis, Namaari; Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy) as Raya’s visionary father, Benja; Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) as Namaari’s powerful mother, Virana; Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) as Tong, a formidable giant; Izaac Wang as Boun, a 10-year-old entrepreneur; Thalia Tran as the mischievous toddler Little Noi; Alan Tudyk (Harley Quinn) as Tuk Tuk, Raya’s best friend and trusty steed; Lucille Soong (Fresh Off the Boat) as Dang Hu, the leader of the land of Talon; Patti Harrison (Shrill) as the chief of the Tail land; and Ross Butler (To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You) as chief of the Spine land.
Raya and the Last Dragon is co-directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6), Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), Paul Briggs (Zootopia) and John Ripa from a script written by Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen.
The film will arrive in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.