Vital Thrills got to participate in an early press day for Raya and the Last Dragon (watch the new trailer!) last week and we learned all about the anticipated Walt Disney Animation Studios film. Joining the event were directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, producer Osnat Shurer, and writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim.
We got a chance to check out some footage from the film, as well as a video tutorial on how to draw the adorable Tuk Tuk from Head of Animation Malcolm Pierce.
Coming to both theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5th, the movie features the voices of Awkwafina as Sisu, the last dragon in Kumandra, and Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, the brave young woman trying to save her land and her father.
Some of the footage we saw was the expanded version of one of the scenes in the teaser trailer (which you can watch in the player below) where young Raya is fighting with a masked man. We also got to check out a betrayal that comes from a friend.
The group was asked about the abundance of female characters (since Sisu is female as well) and if this is a “woman’s world.” Hall told us, “Is it a woman’s world? Well, obviously there are male cast members as well. I think that this movie’s being told through the lens of Raya, our main character, who just happens to be a woman. But it’s a world for everybody and a movie for everybody.”
Estrada added, “I remember the first time we were recording some of these scenes. I remember Awkwafina’s reaction to the scene where the dragon, Namaari and Raya all encounter each other outside of Spine. She was just like, ‘Wow, this feels incredible to have these three really strong female characters all interacting, and the entire scene is just them.’ So I think we’re happy to bring these characters to life, and we’ve had so much incredible help in doing it.”
Though there are plenty of male characters in the footage we saw, it was absolutely lovely to see so many fantastic women in a number of forms, particularly the antagonist.
Shurer told us, “I would just add that it’s a story about trust, and it’s a story about people doing what’s needed to come together. And it’s not exactly incidental what gender they are, but they’re working for something so much greater.
“In addition to that, we have Tong and we have Boun in the story, and we have Benja who is the key behind the whole motivation of the entire story. So we actually see it as a world that more reflects the world that we live in, and if we look in the crowds, and if you look among the guards, you will always see about a 50-50 split, which is more similar to the world we all live in. Really proud of our team for that.
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in Southeast Asia, and Lim spoke about the history of female fighters in the area’s folklore. She said there wasn’t a specific person that they based Raya on, but that there were many.
“In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors,” she explained. “And leaders of their realms. And also, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water.
She continued, “In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. So it’s sort of within a lot of cultures in Southeast Asia. And so we knew it was one of those threads that would really resonate within the film.”
Nguyen said, “In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung sisters. They’re like these famous Vietnamese warriors that I definitely thought of. Without a doubt, I think Adele and I drew inspirations for families from our parents.
“Specifically for me, from my mom. I know what she had to go through when she came to this country. And just to have that kind of fighting spirit. And also, just 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 out there.”
One of the questions for the group was about casting Awkwafina as Sisu the dragon. Shurer said, “I’ll kick it off, because when we met Awkwafina, we knew, first of all, that she’s an incredible actress with a wide range, and with a very professional and disciplined approach to acting. But Awkwafina fit the dragon that we were looking for – some combination of wisdom and emotion and humor. She brings all those three things together in some magical potion.”
Estrada spoke about her as well. “Well, to me, something about Awkwafina that is amazing is that in this movie, particularly, we obviously know her comedic side, and she is hilarious and has improvisational skills like no other,” he said.
“We have also seen her dramatic side. We have have seen her in The Farewell. We have seen all of the dramatic work that she’s done, which is also incredible.
“But this movie, she gets to really travel from one end of the spectrum to the other and everything in between. Sisu really gives Awkwafina such a good chance to explore the wackiest of her comedy, and also just the most earnest beautiful, honest acting that had us all in tears. I just think that it’s really great to see a Disney character that allows an actor to explore that range.” Hall added that the role was written for her.
Estrada continued, “She brought so much of herself into the role. And you will see it when you see the movie. She improvised so many of the scenes. She would come up with different takes on jokes, or would just say, ‘Let me just try a few more.’
“It really shows. We worked on the character thinking of her, but it was not until she stepped in that booth that she really brought her to life in a way that was really exciting to watch.”
In the film, Sisu is the last of her kind, and she gains the powers of her fallen brothers and sisters. She doesn’t have much faith in her own abilities though.
Hall spoke about the dragon’s lack of confidence. “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.”
Estrada said, “A nice texture also to Sisu’s character is that in the movie, she gains the power of shapeshifting, and she’s able to transform into a human. And that allows her to also understand what it feels like to experience the world through our eyes. 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.”
Lim added, “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.
“We can feel embittered. We can feel, caught up in our own grudges. But, some creature like Sisu being able to see that sort of divine core within everybody is the thing that inspires everyone. I hope that’s what people come away with when they see Sisu.”
There is a character that we got to see called a “con baby” named Noi. She’s a little tyke who robs people with her little band of creatures called Ongis. Estrada and Nguyen pitched it early on as a representation of one of the clans, but thought it might not make it in.
Hall said, “I remember bringing it back to Carlos and Qui and pitching it, thinking it’s a pretty crazy idea and they’re going to shut it down. But they actually embraced it and we ran with it. Actually, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of in the movie. Every time Little Noi’s on screen, I’m smiling. I just love it.”
Estrada said of Noi, “I also think it reflects something about the movie that we’re all very proud of, because, yes, she’s an unforgettable character, and yes, it’s very funny, but I think what most drew us to that idea is that it would represent a real struggle in this world.
“On the surface, she’s a cute little baby that bosses around these fantasy monkeys, but if you get to understand her story, you’ll realize that it actually comes from a really human place.
“She robs people because she’s an orphan. And she robs people because she doesn’t have a place to sleep or eat. And she hangs out with these monkeys because she doesn’t have anyone else.
“And I think that’s very reflective of the journey that we go on in this movie. You meet this group of people that, on the surface, appear to be tough or aggressive or violent, and then you get to meet them, and there’s a reason why those people are perceived a certain way, or people have had to adapt to be a certain way.
“And not until this group of people of complete different backgrounds and ideologies are forced to be together and forced to coexist that they get to really understand each other and they get to see eye-to-eye and they get to sort of speak the same language, which is really what the movie’s about.
“I’m glad you asked the Little Noi question, because I think it allows us to talk about something that we really believe that the movie will, hopefully, do to inspire these conversations about what it takes for people from seemingly different backgrounds to come together and work together. And trust each other.”
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.