The creators of the Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon met for a Q&A to discuss the upcoming film and I have the scoop.
Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, producer Osnat Shurer, and screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim were in attendance. Here is the scoop on all the takeaways:
A Powerhouse of Female Characters
In both protagonists and antagonists, Raya and the Last Dragon features many prominent female characters. The main protagonist Raya, the main antagonist Namaari, and the dragon Sisu are all female.
Awkwafina, the voice of the titular Last Dragon Sisu, was blown away by the presence of such prominent female characters. In a scene where Raya, Namaari, and Sisu all encounter one another, Awkwafina described it as feeling “incredible to have these three really strong female characters all interacting, and the entire scene is just them.”
Producer Osnat Shurer highlighted the “50-50 split” of males and females in the ensemble of characters in the film, overall aiming to create a “world that more reflects the world that we live in.”
Despite being from a company famous for its various princesses, Raya is not based on any particular princess or figure from Southeast Asian culture. For Raya’s character, writer Adele Lim discussed how she drew from Southeast Asia’s history of female heroines such as Tun Fatimah and the Trung sisters. For Sisu’s character, Lim drew from Southeast Asian mythology stories of Nagas and dragons like the Naga Tasik Chini for Sisu.
Awkwafina: The Next Genie?
The crew of Raya and the Last Dragon had a lot of praise for the cast. In particular, Awkwafina received a lot of love from the film’s crew during the Q&A. Known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, Awkwafina fuses her comedic and dramatic experiences for the role of Sisu. Osnat describes that her performance is a “combination of wisdom and emotion and humor” that brews into a “magical potion.”
During the Q&A, many comparisons were made between Sisu and the Genie from Aladdin. Both Sisu and the Genie carry a similar presence and silly demeanor. Like how the Genie was written with Robin Williams in mind, director Don Hall feels that they wrote Sisu in mind for Awkwafina. “I can’t imagine somebody else as Sisu. Awkwafina is Sisu. Sisu is Awkwafina” says Hall.
Since Sisu can transform from a dragon into a human, Awkwafina also brought a level of physicality to the role to convey the change. “It’s very important for us to capture not only their vocal performance but their physical performance as well because the animators use that extensively,” says Hall.
To provide the characters with physical quirks and mannerisms, the actors were filmed while giving their lines in the voiceover booths for the animators to reference later. When Awkwafina was in the voiceover booth, Hall described the recording session as a “party.”
Raya and Big Hero Six
Don Hall, director of Raya and the Last Dragon, also directed Big Hero Six, released in 2014. When asked about the similarities between both films, Hall discussed how both films cover a “deep subject.” Hall says that the theme of Big Hero Six is “loss,” while the theme of Raya and the Last Dragon is “trust.”
Wong versus the Editors
Hall reminisced about his experience working with Benedict Wong during the film’s recording sessions. Disney fans will remember Wong from his role as the sorcerer Wong in the Marvel films. In Raya and the Last Dragon, Wong plays the character, Tong.
Hall praised Wong for the physicality and endless enthusiasm he had for the role, feeling he fully realized the character. Wong was so enthusiastic that there were some instances where Wong was stopped from doing another take when he wanted to keep going and experiment with the lines.
This enthusiasm was great for everybody except the editors of the film. Director Carlos López Estrada says “I think he was our editors’ worst nightmare because we would come back from recording sessions with, like, 50 possibilities for each single line, and they were all amazing.” Wong certainly had the editor’s work cut out for them.
With its first Southeast Asian princess at the forefront, viewers will see a culture often not featured in the spotlight of Hollywood in Raya and the Last Dragon. Writer Qui Nguyen hopes that viewers will not only view her as a princess but as a superhero.
“Heroes like Raya are something that I didn’t get to see growing up,” according to Nguyen. “Someone that really represented me, our voice, our culture.” Nguyen is happy that Southeast Asian children and viewers of all ages will have Raya to look up to.
“The idea to be part of a Disney movie that really can celebrate everything that’s beautiful about our culture and how strong our women are is great,” says Lim. Lim is happy to see her culture being properly represented on the big screen thanks to Raya and the Last Dragon.
Raya and the Last Dragon Coming to Disney+
That’s the scoop on Raya and the Last Dragon! I hope you are just as excited as I am for it.
“I got the chance to screen footage of @DisneyRaya#RayaAndTheLastDragon. I am so excited to see more. It is a story full of heart, incredible animation, and has an amazing cast! This film is going to be full of great messages, takeaways, and laughs! #disneyplus” Twitter – @sarahscoop
The film will premiere in theatres and on Disney+ Premier Access on March 5th, 2021.