6 June 2024

Southeast Asian culture becomes creative muse for Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon

Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the last dragon in order to finally stop the Druun for good. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than dragon magic to save the world—it’s going to take trust as well.

From directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, producers Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu, Walt Disney Animation Studio ventures far from the western hemisphere and the Pacific Ocean to the shores of Southeast Asia for the highly anticipated animation, Raya and the Last Dragon. The studio’s first creation with Southeast Asia–inspired setting, it’s crafted by a multi-cultural team who drew inspiration from their own roots and unique cultural upbringings.

US actress Kelly Marie Tran arrives for the 92nd Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on February 9, 2020. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP)

Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim turned to their Southeast Asian heritage to develop the characters of Raya and Sisu, the water dragon. “In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors,” says Lim. “And leaders of their realms. We also have the stories of Nagas and dragons, the creatures of the water.  In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake.  The Nagas and strong females are present within a lot of the cultures in Southeast Asia, so we knew those were threads that would really resonate within the film.

“Throughout different cultures in Asia including Southeast Asia, there is a very strong love and affection for dragons, but these dragons are very different from what you see in ‘Game of Thrones,’ for example. They symbolise luck. They signify life-affirming powers and fortitude, and those aspects were important to expand on since Raya is a Southeast Asian-inspired heroine.”

Nguyen picks up the narrative, saying, “Without a doubt, I think Adele and I drew inspiration from our parents.  Specifically for me, that was from my mom.  I know what she had to go through when she came to this country. We also drew on that fighting spirit and 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.”

Raya seeks the help of the legendary dragon, Sisu. Seeing what’s become of Kumandra, Sisu commits to helping Raya fulfill her mission in reuniting the lands. Featuring Kelly Marie Tran as the voice of Raya and Awkwafina as the voice of Sisu, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021. © 2021 Disney.

As the story of Raya’s journey in Raya and the Last Dragon evolved, a theme of unity and togetherness began to emerge, and this was further honed and defined when directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada came on board.

“There had been some great exploration by the team into the concept of unity and togetherness,” says Don, “but Carlos and I felt that honing in on the trust required to achieve unity would lay a firm groundwork on which to base every decision in our lead character’s journey.”

Joining the multi-cultural production team is also head of story, Fawn Veerasunthorn and her team of story artists. Fawn, who was born and raised in Thailand, felt it was essential for her and her team to be steeped in the cultural inspirations, so she put on a presentation of key learnings that she and the other filmmakers gleaned from their research trip to Southeast Asia. “I wanted to provide the same experience for my team,” says Fawn. “In the beginning it was kind of hard to understand culturally, because people are not as familiar with Southeast Asia as perhaps with other parts of Asia. So, a lot of artists didn’t know what to draw for the outfits or other cultural aspects. So, it was a way to get everyone on the same page.”

As an evil force threatens the kingdom of Kumandra, it is up to warrior Raya to leave her Heart Lands home and track down the legendary last dragon to help stop the villainous Druun. © 2020 Disney.

Director Carlos López Estrada adds, “If you think about Raya in the context of the other movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios, it makes sense and belongs to the family. But, it also stands out in a way that is just super-exciting. I feel like she is going to be unlike any Disney heroine you’ve ever seen.”

Raya and the Last Dragon opens in theatres on 4 March 2021.