Walt Disney Animation Studios, Raya and the Last Dragon travels into a world where everything once lived in harmony before an evil force fractured and divided humanity. Through personal travesty that same evil force sends Raya on an epic journey five hundred years later, with the hope of finding the last dragon and restoring all of the life that had been lost.
Kumandra was a prosperous land when evil spirits called the Druun began to ravage everything. Known for absorbed souls and turning those into stone, the dragons of Kumandra used what was left of their magic to create an orb that not only warded off the Druun, but also restored everyone to life. However, this came with a heavy price as the dragons who remained were turned to stone. A power struggle for the orb ultimately divided the inhabitant people into tribes based on their placement of a giant river made to resemble a dragon: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine and Talon. Heart Tribe acquired the orb and has been guarding it ever since. Until danger and conflict strikes again.
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, Raya and the Last Dragon is a story of courage, triumphs and challenge. In celebration of Raya, a virtual press conference was held to discuss all things Raya and the Last Dragon, co-stars Kelly Marie Tran (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu), Daniel Dae Kim (Benja), Gemma Chan (Namaari), and Sandra Oh (Virana), where the cast discussed the challenges of making Raya from home during a pandemic, why representation matters, the importance of family, and more.
“I think we’re all aware what this kind of movie with heroes that look like this will mean to so many kids and families out there. To have such an A-class group of actors, and to be able to be representatives of that to so many kids is such a dream come true for not just us as filmmakers but just for, like, honestly, the community,” Qui started.
“[It’s] the connection that all of the actors have with the material and with their characters has been so special. We’ve had teary conversations with all of you about the characters and what the story meant to you. And you don’t get to see that very often. We have a group of people that really believe in this movie and what it represents, and I think that just moved us and every single person working on the movie. It was beautiful,” Carlos chimed in.
In the nearly 100 years since Walt Disney Animation Studios’ creation, a studio has never had to face animating a movie during global pandemic. Last March whn lockdowns were going into affect, one fateful morning the order finally came down: Raya and the Last Dragon would move its entire production remotely. Disney had been following the then-early days of the pandemic’s impact on the world and was being proactive about protecting its employees. While this created new challegenes like communication and recording alone in a booth, Daniel Dae Kim enjoyed the learning from the process as the first day didn’t go as planned.
“It’s really great, actually. I love the character a lot. He’s someone that I aspire to be. It’s nice when you can really take a lot of pride in the person that you’re playing. It was amazing actually being able to record from home, because, living in Hawaii, any time I try and travel to go shoot something, it’s at least five hours and sometimes eleven by plane. So, to be able to walk downstairs in my T-shirt and shorts was pretty great. Although, I will have to say, it wasn’t without hiccups. Carlos and Osnat and Don, will all attest, in one of my very first sessions from home, most of his dialogue where he’s talking about Kumandra and establishing a relationship with Raya went missing. I recorded for an hour. We did some great stuff. And at the end of the hour, we were supposed to upload our packets to Team Disney. And as I was uploading my packet, I realized that I had recorded none of that past hour. So this is what happens when you leave the recording and the technical stuff to the actors. So, we lost that hour, but I learned my lesson. And, it was kind of hassle-free the rest of the way.”
From the opening moments of the film, the people of Kumandra feel like an extension of one another with each character blending in and out of each scene with ease. Despite being recorded remotely, the Raya voice actors was able to showcase a sense of togetherness and chemistry that would take time to master together in a recording booth. For Kelly, she credits the incredible production team for creating comradery onscreen.
“Honestly, I feel like all the credit has to go to the story team, the editing team, and all of the incredible team behind the movie because all of the actors, at least in my experience, were all isolated, and we were recording by ourselves. To have seen the movie now totally finished and to see all the chemistry that these incredible characters have, I think that says a lot about the expertise of Disney animation and the incredible talent working behind this movie, and also about the cast obviously. It was an incredible experience.”
Osnat chimed in, “I’m going to go with Disney magic. I really think we just got lucky to find some of the best actors in the world, and they all said yes.” While Carlos believes, “the connection that all of the actors have with the material and with their characters has been so special. We’ve had teary conversations with all of you about the characters and what the story meant to you. And you don’t get to see that very often. We have a group of people that really believe in this movie and what it represents, and I think that just moved us and every single person working on the movie. It was beautiful.”
Qui added in the importance of representation helped the cast find it’s rhythm. “I think we’re all aware what this kind of movie with heroes that look like this will mean to so many kids and families out there. To have such an A-class group of actors, and to be able to be representatives of that to so many kids is such a dream come true for not just us as filmmakers but just for, like, honestly, the community.”
In order to properly portray this community, the Raya team found inspiration from Southeast Asia, that began with research trips to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysis. It was there they were able to discover the beauty, textures, fabrics and food that become the backbone of the film that created unique looks for the five lands.
“And it’s pretty crazy to think that the 450 people who worked on this movie stuffed a bunch of different cultures to this single movie. It’s amazing to see all the things that are included in this movie, including the food and some of the weapons that you see, for example the Kali sticks that I saw, which really stood out to me. And there’s a bunch of other different things that I can’t even name because I don’t even know the name of them because I’ve been centered around a couple cultures my whole life, and just to see all these different cultures is really amazing to me,” said Izaac.
“Rather than the simpler task of having one Southeast Asian country being reflected in one Kumandran land, to Disney’s credit, they really, really went deeper to find the underlying inspirations and core and threads that ran through so many of the communities. And the wonderful thing is what we all found, first of all, in all Southeast Asian countries and cultures there’s such a strong spirit of community. If you look at even one country, like the country I grew up in, Malaysia, there are so many races, cultures, religions. So many ways for us to view each other as the enemy or view each other as the other. But when you truly look at what makes our culture amazing and sings, whether it’s our arts or our food, the best street food in the world, it is because of all these different elements really coming together and creating something transcendent. So the filmmakers getting to that and wanting to tell the story of a divided world and seeing both sides of that aspect used all those inspirations to be able to tell the greater arc of the story. I wanted to say with all the details whether it’s Raya’s sword, that wavy Keris dagger, or the shadow puppets used, or even the arts. All of these things, Qui and I, who grew up in Southeast Asian households know, said Adele.
“It was also made with so many Southeast Asian artists. Whether it’s in the story team, our visual arts department, animation, people who are already there, not brought together for Raya, but that who were already being brought out by Disney, who are able to add in all these different details at different levels of the script. Things that you don’t necessarily glean from a seminar or learning or reading about but things that you feel in your DNA. So hopefully, even if you know nothing about Southeast Asia that you’re really able to feel that love and that attention at every layer of our film,”” Adele finished.
When it came to the details, Awkwafina was stunned by the beauty of the animation. “I’m gonna be honest, I saw the first clip that was put together at D23 and I was a little confused because I was like, ‘Is this a live-action movie? Let me get my agent on the phone.’ It looked so realistic, with the rain and everything. But then, you realize all that really goes into this. We’re recording simultaneously, as it’s being animated. When I first saw the human version of Sisu, I was like, “Okay, all right, that’s me. That looks like me.” Those nuances are very, very trippy and very, very mind-blowing.”
“I think the real beauty here is that when I was approached to play Sisu and heard about what her vibe was, I was given a chance to add my own voice to it and simultaneously build her up with the directors, who were always more than willing to explore and play. She was really born out of that process. But they’re both definitely big and blue. That’s definitely a thing. Those are really big shoes to fill. The really cool thing about Sisu is that she was part my voice too,” Awkwafina continued.
Raya is a beautiful, celebratory film about showcasing different cultures and these communities in hopes of bringing everyone together. Chief Benja opens up his home in hopes that all of the different lands can come
together to just break bread, for others to understand they are all fighting for the same goal: peace. Sandra Oh’s biggest hope is the audience learns to the importance of trusting others.
“I was extremely moved by the theme and the 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. Even if we start with that question, to see in one’s self, “Who do I trust? How am I not trusting? Can I trust? Can I trust that other side? Can I trust them when it seems to be proof positive that this is what has been done to me?” The theme of the story is that we cannot go on as a society and the world cannot continue without open-heartedness. The truth Raya and Namaari learn is that you have to be willing to have your heart broken, again and again and again, just to keep it open. We know hate is not finished by hate. It is only won over by love. Individually, and then hopefully as a community and society, we have to move towards that way because all of us are in the same boat. It’s a beautiful opportunity. If one can see 2020, in all its destructiveness and change, as an opportunity that somehow has also broken all of our hearts open, what can we do with that?”
“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. And I think it emboldened us to continue forward because we felt like we had something to say. And if this film can just teach one person to be brave enough to trust somebody, then we feel like we’ve done what we set out to do.”
Raya and the last Dragon is in theaters and on PVOD on Disney+.
To learn more about the film, check out the full video above.