Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon will hit screens on March 5 and features a new Southeast Asian-inspired warrior with a mission to save her world.
Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest animated feature and centers on Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), an 18-year-old girl whose world is plagued by the evil Druun (monsters that turn everyone in their wake to stone). As a young girl, Raya and her father guarded the Dragon Gem created by the legendary dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) 500 years ago in order to protect Raya’s world of Kumandra. However, Raya’s childhood friend Namaari (Gemma Chan) betrayed Raya by revealing the location of the gem. The people of Kumandra try to take the Dragon Gem for themselves, which causes it to fracture. This releases the Druun and turns Raya’s father into stone. Alone, Raya must find Sisu, The Last Dragon, to repair the Dragon Gem and defeat the Druun.
The Knockturnal attended the Raya and the Last Dragon press day where we learned about the team behind the movie as well as their process and inspirations. In part I of our coverage, we’ll delve into the theme of trust that plays out throughout Raya and Sisu’s journey.
Raya’s Childhood Trauma
Raya is self-reliant but lacks trust in others. This stems from Namari’s betrayal and the trauma of losing her father, her only parent, at a young age. Director Don Hall, known previously for Disney’s Academy Award-winning Big Hero 6, adds, “This is Raya’s journey of learning to trust after her trust was so deeply broken when she was a child.” But how does Raya regain that trust when she is determined to save the world with only her friend/armadillo-like pet Tuk-Tuk by her side? Well, Raya learns she cannot succeed alone. Raya’s other director Carlos López Estrada, whose directorial debut Blindspotting gained critical acclaim, explains, “You can’t really get to unity without trust and for Raya, it will take trusting a group of strangers if she is ever going to have a united Kumandra.”
As Raya journeys to reunite her world, she quickly learns that she is stronger with the help of others. This is a lesson she particularly learns once meeting Sisu. Raya’s past trauma instills her with a sense of independence and responsibility to protect her world, but her strength is in recognizing that friendship and teamwork are the only way to fulfill her mission. Of course, Raya’s team of misfits that she learns to trust are some of the most fun and interesting characters (our favorite being the street-smart baby who leads a group of monkey-like creatures called the Ongis).
The World of Kumandra
Raya’s distrust of others is not the only instance of disunity in the movie. The entire world of Kumandra is divided. Kumandra consists of five regions which together form the shape of a dragon. The regions are Heart (Raya’s home), Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Each region is unique from each other as described by Raya’s producer, who also spearheaded Disney’s Moana, Osnat Shurer:
[The five regions] have five different natural environments, materials they build with, different colors the locals wear, different shape languages that are meaningful to them. For example, in the land of Heart, they are connected to the dragon and the dragon is connected to water, so buildings, rooms, etc. look more like a drop—they’re round. Whereas in the land of Fang, they’re all about power, so the structures are powerful and over-scale. Every one of these things have been thought through by our incredible visual development and production design team members and then carried through into the film.
The fact that Raya’s team created such distinctive regions makes their division and conflict so much more believable. Each region has its own culture and ethos and when we first meet Raya, they each are solely concerned with their own well-being. Specifically, each region wants a piece of the powerful Dragon Gem more than they want to save the people of Kumandra from the Druun. But it is important to remember that together these regions form a dragon, the most powerful creature of Raya’s fantastical world. Raya and her team represent all of the regions of Kumandra and together they will attempt to save it.
Raya and Sisu: An Unlikely Pair
Raya, a fearless warrior, endeavors to find Sisu and expects to meet a legendary dragon of strength and wisdom. Instead, she finds a clumsy, unsure creature, excellently voiced by Awkwafina, who equates banishing the Druun 500 years ago to being the person in a group project whose only job was to turn in the assignment. The two are not exactly the most expected duo. Yet Sisu is exactly what Raya needs to flip her on her head, quite literally, and alter her perspective of the world and of trusting others.
To describe Sisu, Awkwafina attests, “She has optimism, she has hope and she even has belief in herself—but really to her surprise. I love her because she isn’t perfect, and I think that’s a strong message to send to everyone: We don’t have to be perfect.” That’s something that Raya can definitely learn for herself. She holds herself to such a high standard that there’s no room for help from others. As Sisu and Raya travel to unite the fractured Kumandra, they are met with challenges and Raya learns, with the help of Sisu, that she does not have to be perfect as long as she has support from others. Sisu never loses trust in humans, which helps Raya regain faith in others.
Trust and Unity
The team behind Raya and the Last Dragon did not only center Kumandra and its characters around the themes of trust and unity, but they took those themes to heart. Producer Osnat Shurer reflects, “Divisiveness in the world and the need to come together for the greater good, despite our differences, is something that is top of mind for so many of us. We all are excited to bring out a film that provides a space for that conversation.” Co-director Paul Briggs further connects the messages of the film to his immediate family stating, “I want my son, and my grandson, and my great-great-grandchildren to understand that this film is about the need for trust in each other so that we can come together to make this world a better place.” Raya and the Last Dragon is clearly more than a film to the team behind it. It is an opportunity for its audience to reflect on the divisions around them and hopefully regain a sense of optimism for unity. Along the way, they’ll also get to see an action-packed fantasy filled with comedy and heart.
Look out for Part II of our Raya and the Last Dragon coverage where we’ll discuss the many aspects of the film inspired by Southeast Asian cultures.
Raya and the Last Dragon comes to theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.