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Photo: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’/Disney+
Back in October, Disney revealed the teaser trailer for its next animated film ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’. Taking place in a fantasy world inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, the film is being touted as Disney’s latest venture in greater representation and featuring the company’s first Southeast Asian princess. It looked very promising and did its job in introducing the film’s fantasy setting.
But this past week a new trailer was released and based on what I saw, I am legitimately excited. The film promises to be a funny and action-packed adventure in a setting very rarely, if ever, depicted in mainstream pop culture. In addition to showing more of the film’s world, we got to see more of everything: the characters, the plot, the humor, and the action. And considering how incredibly consistent Disney Animation has been in turning out quality work in the modern age, and in some cases even surpassing their brethren over at Pixar, I’m confident this is also going to deliver. That said, here’s everything we know about it.
The Story of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’
The film takes place in the fictional fantasy land of Kumandra which, as mentioned earlier, draws heavily from Southeast Asian cultures. Long ago, humans and dragons lived in harmony. But when a horde of monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save mankind. 500 years later, the five regions of Kumandra—Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail—have fallen into disarray and are divided when the Druun return. It falls on lone warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to find the last surviving dragon and help reconcile the differences of the five lands in order to save the world.
The new trailer gives us more insight into Raya’s journey, as well as the allies and enemies she’ll encounter. In addition to her trusty armadillo-like steed Tuk Tuk (Disney regular Alan Tudyk), others who join Raya on her quest are baby con artist Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a ten-year-old entrepreneur Boun (Izaac Wang), and the hulking and formidable warrior Tong (Benedict Wong). As far as obstacles, Raya must deal with Namaari (Gemma Chan), a rival warrior also seeking the dragon for her own purposes. And as Raya finds out, the last surviving dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) might not be as formidable as she had hoped.
The Creative Team Behind the Scenes
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ was first announced back in 2019 at Disney’s D23 Expo. The film had been in development since 2017, supplanting a prior project (a reimagining of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk) that Disney had shelved. Awkwafina was announced as the voice of Sisu, with ‘Degrassi’ star Cassie Steele voicing Raya; however, a year later Raya was recast with Kelly Marie Tran now in the lead role.
The film’s directors are Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, with Paul Briggs and John Ripa as co-directors. While Hall, Briggs, and Ripa are Disney veterans, the real surprise for me was Estrada—prior to this he was the director of the excellent 2018 indie dramedy ‘Blindspotting’ with Daveed Diggs, and apparently, he’s been part of Disney Animation’s creative leadership since ‘Frozen II’. It’s an interesting turn. The script was written by ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ screenwriter Adele Lim and Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen.
In addition to the actors mentioned earlier, others in the voice cast include Lucille Soong, comedian Patti Harrison, and Ross Butler as the chiefs of the various lands of Kumandra, as well as Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s father Chief Benja and Sandra Oh as Namaari’s mother Virana.
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On Paying Tribute to Southeast Asian Culture
To bring the world and characters of Kumandra to life, the creative team behind the film drew inspiration from the cultures of countries like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, as well as visiting most of the abovementioned countries for research.
This makes itself apparent in details that can be found in the movie, as detailed by IGN and in a conversation with D23. In the same way, he put together a team of Oceanic experts to consult on ‘Moana’, producer Osnat Shurer also assembled a Southeast Asian Story Trust to contribute throughout the film’s creation. Based on the trailer alone, one can see the Southeast Asian influences in the architecture, clothing, and landscapes. For example, the night markets of the Talon region draw heavily from Southeast Asian floating markets, and the animation team put in the effort to properly capture the dense and steamy atmosphere. Others in the story trust include a textile expert from the Pacific Asia Museum and an Indonesian linguist from UCLA who would consult on every name put in the movie.
This attention to detail also extends to Raya herself; while her attire and hairstyle were designed to be functional for a warrior, the team also strived to make sure that her garments still reflected the Southeast Asian influences: one iteration of her costuming includes the Cambodian sompot, a long rectangular cloth tied around the waist; even the slope of Raya’s hat resembles a stupa. Nguyen, also serving as the team’s martial arts consultant, worked to make sure that the film’s fight scenes would be rooted in Southeast Asian martial arts—specifically, the popular Thai fighting style of Muay Thai, the Philippines’ national martial art of Arnis, and the Indonesian pencak silat.
In conceiving the characters, Nguyen and Lim drew inspiration from history and legends. The two explain that Southeast Asia has a rich tradition of female leaders and warriors, as well as stories of dragons and nagas. They cite as examples the Malaysian warrior Tun Fatimah and the Vietnamese Trung warrior sisters, and the legend of a naga that inhabits Malaysia’s Chini Lake. Raya’s characterization was also key as the writers worked to avoid Asian stereotyping; Nguyen points out that Asian characters tend to be portrayed as stoic, serious, and obsessed with bringing honor to the family, and strived to make Raya more relatable. Lim also points out that the name Raya is Malay for “celebration”, which evokes a joyful time of people coming together (fun fact: it’s also Indonesian for “great” and is the root word for “merayakan”, which also means to celebrate).
Of course, there is still some room for improvement vis-a-vis representation: some on Twitter have pointed out that much of the voice cast is made up of actors of East Asian ancestry. Kelly Marie Tran is Vietnamese, and she’s not the only Southeast Asian actor in the cast—Patti Harrison is half-Vietnamese, Izaac Wang is half-Laotian, and Ross Butler is Singaporean. But it would appear that the rest of the cast are of Chinese or Korean descent. There’s the worry that the casting feeds into the myth that all people of Asian heritage are the same. But at the same time, it shouldn’t take away from what’s been accomplished. In the filmmakers’ defense, it looks like they sought to cast the best actors for each role. It’s also obvious the creative team put a lot of work into getting things right for the film. And it’s a testament to their commitment to properly capture the spirit of Southeast Asia.
When Should We Expect It?
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ was initially set to be released last November before the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled things. After delays, the film will now be released next month in theaters and on Disney+. And like last year’s ‘Mulan’ remake, the film will be part of Disney +’s “Premier Access” initiative (which means paying extra, most likely $29.99) for the first couple of months.
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ premieres on March 5, 2021.
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa | Writers: Adele Lim, Qui Nguyen | Producers: Osnat Shurer, Peter Del Vecho | Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Patti Harrison, Lucille Soong, Ross Butler
By Mario Yuwono
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