Disney is expanding its catalogue of Disney princesses, this time taking inspiration from Southeast Asian cultures in Raya and the Last Dragon (releasing on Disney+ for $34.99 in Canada, with a subscription).
“She's the next iteration of the Disney princess," writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asian) said told Yahoo Canada."She is not just a princess in terms of the more like superficial qualities but she's a leader and she's a warrior, and I feel like that's a very new heroine that we can all sort of get behind.”
You may be accustomed to seeing dragons as evil creatures but in the land of Kumandra, it’s quite the opposite. In this fantasy land, dragons and humans lived together until the Druun arrived, a force that turns living things to stone. The once unified land of Kumandra separates into five lands, Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail, with their own resources and climate, leaving the dragons extinct.
Raya is the daughter of Benja, chief of Heart, guarding the magical dragon gem until conflict between the lands leads to the gem being broken. Raya ends up on a journey to find Sisu, the last dragon, and the gemstone pieces. Along the way, with her companion Tuk Tuk by her side, she forms a group to help her on her quest, including a baby con artist and some monkeys.
Actor Kelly Marie Tran takes on the voice of Raya and truly, she's a great fit. Tran brings forward a strength and sincerity to the character that's incredibly essential.
"I think what's unique about Raya is her character as a female warrior," head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn told Yahoo Canada."Growing up as a tomboy, I think I would have loved to see her character as a kid."
If you have been longing for another great comedic Disney character, reminiscent of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin (let’s face it, Will Smith didn’t necessarily give us humorous substitute we we were hoping for), Awkwafina as Sisu in Raya and the Last Dragon is just perfect.
Sisu has the larger-than-life personality of Awkwafina and she will have you laughing out loud as she accompanies Raya on this journey. This should definitely be a role that goes down in Disney history as one of the most entertaining characters we’ve seen.
Aside from the characters, Raya and the Last Dragon is simply visually stunning. The richness and depth of colours, the details in the landscape, it's like you're having a full sensory experience, even though you're just watching a movie.
"The world building was to a degree I've never seen before," director Don Hall told Yahoo Canada. "I'm very proud of how the film was able to still accomplish all the humour, all the heart, really bad-ass action scenes...but it's all held together very cohesively."
'We didn't have a lot of other movies...to compare it'
This movie is led by strong, female characters, Raya, Sisu and Namaari (Gemma Chan), Raya's nemesis, although they did have a history of bonding as younger children. A core component of the story is working through the evolution of the friendships between the three characters.
“When we sat in the story room and were working on this movie, we didn't have a lot of other movies, certainly not Hollywood movies, to compare it to,” producer Osnat Shurer revealed to Yahoo Canada, adding that she hopes this film can open up the conversation in future story rooms as well.
Lim shared, while working on her first Disney production, that when she was taking the elevator from the parking garage to the Disney offices she saw several other young Asian women, something she has never seen at another Hollywood studio.
Veerasunthorn identified that it was one of the first times in meetings when she had to get clarification on which "she" someone was referring too when discussing the story.
"We were able to portray females, not only females but Asian characters, in many different lights," she said. "There's the good, the bad, the funny, the goofy and serious one, and I love that about this movie."
"I think it will kind of portray people as people."
The group that worked on the project took research trips throughout Southeast Asia, including Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.
In terms of building these five worlds, director Carlos López Estrada explained this was also a way to pull from the diversity of Southeast Asia. Even the architecture and the food available in each of the five lands in the film are meant to tap into different characteristics of different Southeast Asian cultures.
“It was very empowering to be able to see things that come from my cultures, or cultures that are adjacent to mine, that are celebrated,” writer Qui Nguyen told Yahoo Canada.
”It was fun to see the different foods that were up there...like Malaysian cooking or Thai cooking or Vietnamese cooking,... an element of Filipino architecture or something like that that was just so fun to be able to just see your background celebrated in this way, it's very moving.”
Nguyen actually ended up assisting to bring in culturally accurate Southeast Asian fighting styles for this bad-ass, action packed film. He had experience as a fight director and in doing martial arts himself, and this opportunity allowed for the celebration of the fighting styles he grew up with that aren’t often seen on the screen.
“Unlike kung fu or karate, the shapes, the weapons that we use are very different,” he explained.
'I never got to see a Southeast Asian hero'
One thing is critically clear from everyone involved in front of and behind the camera: Everyone needs to be able to see themselves in movies and the absence of representation has significantly impacted people.
“For someone like myself, growing up in the '70s and the '80s, I didn't see anything and I feel like that has been the same way, representation-wise, for a very long time,” Canadian actor Sandra Oh who voices Virana, Namaari's mother, said at the virtual press conference for the movie.
“Especially for the much younger generation, to have a space for them to be heard, it's an exhilarating change for someone like myself to be a part of and to witness.”
“We owe it to people like you,” Thalia Tran, the voice of the con artist baby Little Noi said in response to Oh.
For Nguyen, he highlighted that he is now getting to create the superhero that he wanted to see his whole life.
“Growing up in a small town in Arkansas, I never got to see a Southeast Asian hero, especially at a magnitude of a Disney animated film,” Nguyen said.
“This is a big Hollywood movie that I think kids that look like me, that have been longing to see a hero like this, get to celebrate. Not just for themselves but with their friends that maybe aren't of that race, I think that's a very empowering thing to feel."
Daniel Dae Kim, who voices chief Benja, added that it’s important to not “undervalue”and “underestimate” that these characters are in a Disney movie, which will largely be watched by families.
“I'm also thinking about all the children who will be seeing Raya for the first time and seeing an Asian, strong female who kicks ass," Kim said. She's on the path to becoming a ruler and she's being groomed by her father to do that in a loving relationship."
Message of trust
The core message of the film is trust, something that is especially important today, during a pandemic and in a world where many groups of people are living in a more fragmented society.
“It's funny how a movie that has been worked on for so long really comes with a message that feels so, so timely” Estrada said.
At a time when we continue to hear about anti-Asian hate crimes, Oh went on to say that she was “extremely moved” by the theme of trust throughout the movie.
“Art is here to pose questions...and to potentially suggest possibilities,” she said. “I think even if we start with that question to see in oneself. Who do I trust? How am I not trusting? Can I trust? Can I trust that other side?”
“You have to be willing to have your heart broken again and again and again, just to keep it open. Because I think that we know hate is not finished by hate. It is only won over by love.”
Tran revealed that there is a moment near the end of the movie where Raya gets angry and for her, seeing a woman feel that anger and having her friends pull her out of it felt “so real”.
“You do get to that place sometimes where you feel like, 'oh this a very broken world and I'm feeling a lot of things right now' and recognizing, for me, gosh that moment felt so grounded in reality,” she said. “Acknowledging that there's a lot of pain that happens there and recognizing that...the only way to really get through it is to look for the bits of hope in your community.”
“I think everyone on this call is doing impossible things in a world that told us we couldn't. So I'm grateful to be part of that, to be making a movie with all of you guys about that same thing, with these characters who are also trying to fight for a world that feels impossible and hopeless sometimes.”