“Raya and the Last Dragon” is the latest Disney animated film, set in the magical land of Kumandra. Inspired by Southeast Asian culture, the film features complex female characters and a star-studded voice cast, including Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan and Awkwafina.
Mochi recently sat down with Osnat Shurer (pictured above, right), one of the film’s producers, and screenwriter Adele Lim (pictured above, left) to discuss inspiration and why we should watch the film.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
KP: We’re pleased to interview the two of you, as strong women who have worked on “Moana” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” You have a wealth of experience to share, and I can’t wait to talk about it. That noted, our Mochi audience is primarily young women. Why would our readers be interested in this film?
AL: First of all, this is the Disney action movie that I would have given my eyes out to have as a kid and as a grown-up now, as a woman of 45. If you’re anywhere between those ages, or even beyond that, there’s definitely something for you here.
As an Asian American woman [who grew up in Malaysia and has been in the U.S. for 20 years], I grew up with Disney movies and a lot of other Hollywood movies. It is sometimes very easy to believe that your face and your story do not belong on the global stage because of all the movies that we’ve been exposed to. We are proud of our culture, but sometimes it feels like the larger world does not see us or have an appreciation for [our culture]. So to have a major Disney animated feature use Southeast Asian cultures as the core inspiration is tremendous.
It is a love letter on so many different levels, from the writing to our story artists’ visual development. Our talented Asian artists who are already in the Disney system are getting to really celebrate their own culture and bring in details of how they grew up. For the young women in your readership who are viewing [the film], they’re going to recognize a lot of what they see on screen, even though it’s an entirely fantasy world — from deep parts of how they grew up and the female side of it.
I grew up on Hong Kong action movies where you had strong women who, even if they played the cute girl or the mean girl, they could still whip out a sword and lay waste to all the bad guys. Then you think everybody in the world has these characters growing up. It wasn’t until I got to America where I realized not all of us had those strong female characters on screen that we could look up to.
So with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” we don’t just have Raya, right? She has her female friendship with Sisu at the heart of our movie and then we have her amazing, complex relationship with Namaari and other warriors. Being able to see female friendships and relationships are just really powerful in a movie. It’s a dream come true for me personally, but I’m very biased. [I love] the idea that they’re strong characters and are also some of the great fighters, yet none of their problems in the movie have to do with their gender. They are saving the world; there is a problem that is bigger, and that has to do with people coming together. Bringing people together is a very feminine trait, so you get these powerful women, their issues are not [related to] their gender, and that in itself is a complete breakthrough in a mainstream movie.
KP: There’s been some criticism about having Southeast Asian culture as a whole, versus just picking one particular ethnicity. How did you work with your consulting group to make sure that these depictions, both visually and in the writing, accurately portrayed that region?
OS: Yeah, it’s a good question; we’re talking about a region with 11 countries. Each country has multiple cultures and ethnicities and religions. On our first research trip, we knew we wanted to tell a story about how our differences — rather than dividing us and being a reason for enmity — are things we need to embrace, and [the need to] come together and to lift up the whole world.
One of the things that struck us so much was that in each country we visited, everybody worked together for the greater good. There’s a sense of “we.” That is very strong and was exactly what we wanted to tell a story about. So, we came back and decided that this would be the inspiration for what is essentially a completely fantastical fantasy world and an original story we made up.
The next step was to bring on board experts in various areas. Our Southeast Asian Story Trust was made up of individuals with knowledge of cultural practices and rituals. One of our key experts is a cultural anthropologist with an expertise and visual representation of ritual. His culture is Lao, but his knowledge is across the whole region.
The other big key was having people in the creative room who are from the region, such as Adele and Qui Nguyen, her co-writer to the head of story. These wonderful conversations would happen in the room. One would go, “Hey, we do that [in our culture],” and the other would go, “Yeah, let’s do it! Let’s put it in the movie. Let’s design it!” It was a real active joy of celebration of culture.
KP: Adele, so as any film develops, there are many things that change in the process when you were starting out and thinking about what Kumanda was versus what it turned out to be. What was the process, and what were the key things that might have changed?
AL: Particularly for a Disney animated feature, things change all the time. We have eight different screenings of the movie before you get to the final result. Through every single one of those screenings, we are reinventing the movie.
In terms of Kumandra, when I came on, there was already the idea of this land united by the dragon river, but broken into five separate lands. How did it change? We could talk about this probably for a whole day, but each land for us started out with a specific cultural characteristic, or at least what Raya thinks about that land. As we honed the story of pulling these lands together, we came up with the characters she meets along the way and who represents those lands. There were a lot of changes — whether it’s changing the specific character or changing the attributes of the land. All of this was to service the larger story that we were trying to tell.
At the end of the day, one of the biggest changes was not wanting to feel that any one particular land was the villain land, even though Namaari comes from the land of Fang and has the most animosity toward Raya. They are not the reason the world has been split apart, so one particular person or region could not be faulted for that. All of us are culpable in our own ways, and all of us can make gestures to sort of heal our relationships versus drive each other apart. Those were the biggest changes.
KP: Kelly Marie Tran was brought into the project. I’m curious, why Kelly? Why her out of all other actresses?
OS: There’s something magical that happened when Kelly Marie came in to record for the first time. Raya is somebody who has had her trust broken and when we meet her again, when she’s grown up, she’s pretty disillusioned about the world. That character can get pretty dark, but when you cast somebody like Kelly Marie Tran — she brings this warmth, joy of life, love for life, and a kindness to people, as well as her own strength and wit. She’s extremely funny. What you get is the warmth that breaks through.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” released by Disney, is available now in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.
Photo credits: Disney