Raya and the Last Dragon came together under unusual circumstances. Completed during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the team of hundreds of animators, directors, writers, and actors had to work on the Disney fantasy-adventure epic from home and had to trust in one another — a bond that would spill over into the film itself. Raya and the Last Dragon is about “learning to trust” in others, directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada said during the early press day for Raya and the Last Dragon. And that couldn’t be more fitting, considering the unusual way it (almost miraculously) came together.
Animators had to work on scenes while balancing pets and kids on their knees, voice actors had to install recording studios out of their closets, and the directors and writers had to gather this all together while building a rich, culturally-authentic world with the film’s team of consultants, including the Southeast Asia Story Trust.
“It’s a story about trust, and it’s a story about people doing what’s needed to come together,” producer Osnat Shurer said during the press day Q&A.
In Raya and the Last Dragon, Kelly-Marie Tran stars as the titular lone warrior, whose emotional and physical scars have closed her off to the world. Betrayed as a young child, she refuses to trust anyone, except perhaps her cute sidekick Tuk Tuk. That is, until she is forced to let down her walls when she meets the enthusiastic Dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), whose years away from the world have left her still thinking the best of humanity.
It’s through this unlikely pairing that Raya and the Last Dragon plays out its theme of trust, Hall said, adding:
“For us, it was important to show the different sides of trust in terms of Sisu trusting in people completely. And utterly. And how in a world that is as broken as Kumandra, when we pick up the story, that trust can be taken advantage of. But she never loses her belief in the power of trust, and in her belief in human beings. And I think it was important for us to push on it, but have Sisu be unwavering in her ability and belief in trust.”
Added screenwriter Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), who co-wrote the script with Qui Nguyen (Vietgone): “I think the magical thing about Sisu, in this movie, is that she has that trust and that faith in humanity, even when we don’t deserve it. Even when we betray it. Even when we let each other down again and again.”
Raya and Sisu form the buddy-comedy core of Raya and the Last Dragon, a dynamic which is strengthened when Sisu gains the power to shapeshift, transforming into an awkward, hyperactive human girl. “And that allows her to also understand what it feels like to experience the world through our eyes,” Estrada said. “The distrust and the challenges that we face with each other. And that, I think, brings her just a little bit closer to us and allows her to speak not only from experience and not only from hundreds of years of wisdom, but also just from a different perspective, which is many times something that we lack.”
The theme of trust, and a coming together of different groups and cultures, played specifically to Raya and the Last Dragon‘s Southeast Asian influences as well, Lim said. There’s a sense of “community,” within Raya and the Last Dragon, which is upheld as an important part of many Southeast Asian cultures, Lim said. “I feel like with a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia, it’s really feeling that someone else’s child is your child. That you are responsible for the people in your community as if they are your own family. When that’s broken, it really breaks you individually as a person. And we really wanted to feel that within the movie,” Lim said.
When Raya and the Last Dragon was conceived and began early development five years ago, the world felt broken, the team said. And now, as it’s set to be released in both theaters and streaming amid a pandemic, the world feels even more broken. But that’s what makes Raya and the Last Dragon‘s message of “trust” even more important, Nguyen said:
“Working for Disney, I think part of what we do is that we deal in magic. I think, right now, the world is very broken. This movie has a lot of magic in it, but I think the biggest piece of magic in it is trust. It is the real secret ingredient that will save our fictional world of Kumandra. And it’s a message I think is really important for the world to have and see.”
Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on March 5, 2021.
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