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Raya And The Last Dragon Filmmakers Reveal The Movie's True Importance - Exclusive Interview

Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantastical tale of a warrior princess who embarks on an epic journey to save everyone she knows and loves after her world is turned upside down by an evil entity. To save humanity, Raya must find the last known dragon that has magical powers and can repair the ruins that were once a bountiful and beautiful land known as Kumandra.

Kelly Marie Tran of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker fame leads an all-star cast as the voice of Raya, with Awkwafina portraying the last dragon Sisu. Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan, and Sandra Oh also lend their voices to the animated adventure.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Raya and the Last Dragon writer Adele Lim and producer Osnat Shurer discussed the cultural influences that impacted Raya's character and what it was like working such an impressive voice cast.

Raya is modeled after warrior women from Southeast Asian culture

Raya is brimming with girl power. Speaking as women, why was that an important angle to pursue?

Adele Lim: Well, first of all, what a lot of people don't know about Southeast Asia is that we have a great tradition of strong female warriors and strong female leaders in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. But, really, as a female storyteller — for me and Osnat, this is our happy place.

I grew up with Hong Kong action movies, where women were the beautiful girlfriend or the villain, but they could still sort of lay waste to all the guys around them. And it was so important to have that spirit really embodied in Raya. And I started to bring up the fact that when we were looking at [comparisons], while we have a strong action movie with a female protagonist... what could we compare it to?

There were really no major Hollywood movies with a close female friendship at their heart. Most of these female action heroes were very stoic and would show up kind of perfect, like physically perfect. You know, the characters are perfect and didn't really crack a joke. And we knew that's not the Raya we wanted. Those are not the women we grew up with and love. So it really came from a place of that.

It came from a place of what's the most interesting character. What are the most interesting relationship dynamics, even looking at the relationship between Raya and Namaari. Namaari started out as much more of a typical villain, but when we looked into what made it more interesting, it was giving her that backstory with young Raya. Having them be enemies, but really be so drawn and intrigued by each other. It was really exciting. And the entire filmmaking team really embraced that.

Osnat Shurer: And just to add, it was really important to us — and the whole team agreed — that their gender is not their problem. They have a world to save. There are problems, there are big problems, and their gender... sure it's part of who they are, and that's awesome, but it's not something they have to overcome. That was so important to us.

Disney princesses have evolved quite a bit over time. Did you have a favorite growing up, and how does Raya compare to that favorite?

Lim: The very first movie I ever watched was Disney's Snow White. And my grandmother was obsessed with Disney, and I was influenced by so many of those movies. I think the Disney princess is always an inspirational and an aspirational figure for so many young women around the world. And Raya specifically, even though it's a fantasy land and a fantasy character, she is such a great reflection of the world we live in today. And speaking to the young people who can see the divisiveness and the brokenness of the world around them, I hope that Raya really inspires the young leaders among us, the kids among us, to step up and feel like it's also on them to help pull the world together.

Shurer: Absolutely. I grew up in Israel around the idea of warrior women and the strength of "I can do anything." And so for me, Raya is real. Raya is a real aspiration. Raya is a real reflection of so many women I know.

As equally important as the girl power, Raya is Disney's first Southeast Asian princess. Why is that an important milestone for Disney and beyond?

Lim: Speaking from personal experience, growing up and watching Disney movies, when you grow up in Southeast Asia, it's easy to feel that the rest of the world doesn't really see you, especially in major Hollywood movies that are seen around the world. We don't see faces like ours. We don't see stories like ours. We don't see our culture being celebrated. And it's easy to feel a little bit invisible.

Having the experience of writing in Hollywood for the past 20 years, I've really never had that many chances to write for characters that looked like me, or really have them part of my own cultural background. But having that be the central inspiration for a Disney animated feature, it is not just once in a lifetime, it feels like it's a once in a generation — and not just for me. There were so many wonderful people on our team at Disney, including my co-writer Qui Nguyen and also our head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn. And the story artists, the animators, the visual development team who either came from the region or had historical cultural roots there.

So you would see on top of the wonderful cultural trust that was now spearheaded, that we would be able to put in details in the script, in the visuals that came from how we grew up, how children relate to their parents. Whether it's the fruits, the food, the tiny little details, the cute little hair thing in young Raya's otherwise kick-butt outfit. These are all things that are very much part of our culture.

Awkwafina kept the filmmakers on their toes and continually laughing

With the all-Asian lead cast — Kelly Marie, Awkwafina, Gemma, Daniel, Sandra — what kind of statement or cultural impact do you hope the film sends?

Shurer: I think that there's this universal impact that the film carries by definition. It's a story about coming together, including our differences and doing something greater than what we can do separately. In fact, the need for that, the greater good... we have a pretty divisive world that we've obviously created around us, and I think that's part of the message of the film. Then, collecting a cast of people who embody their characters so completely, like the way that Kelly Marie brings this powerful warmth and sense of humor together, all those things that are hard to find in a human being, she brings that drive. It's like a dream cast.

Any funny stories that stand out about working with such an all-star cast? It particularly seems like Awkwafina would be a riot to work with...

Shurer: She is. We all had to keep our mics on mute when Awkwafina was recording because we all were laughing so hard.

Just to be clear, we did much of the production of this film from home — from 50 homes, to be exact. So we had the cast recording from home. We were recording with Awkwafina in her living room... so we sent her a tent — a tent for sound — which she set up in her living room. And of course she video-taped [the setup], and we were all laughing so hard we were crying.

So anyway, she's in this big tent now in the middle of her living room trying to record [her lines] and we're all on Zoom and her cat decides that this is the time to enter the picture and contribute to the conversation. So we were in tears a lot. And the beauty of it is that Awkwafina can also take you to a deep, emotional place as an actor. And that's the magic of working with her. She's both hilarious and inventive, as well as a really deep thinker who's connected to her emotions.

And any stories from you, Adele, that stand out in your mind?

Lim: Oh my gosh, I think it's also an Awkwafina story. As Osnat said, that place of spontaneity and joy is where you really get a sense of the texture of the character. So we would just have her riff, like go on these huge comedic riffs. Like, Sisu would smell food, and Awkwafina would go on this crazy riff of "I smell brisket! Is that brisket? Do you have brisket in your pocket?" And we were just cracking up. We loved it so much. But we're in a fantasy land of Kumandra, there is no brisket. So we swapped out the brisket for this jackfruit jerky that she started chomping on.