The release of Raya and the Last is just around the corner and in Part II of our coverage we are talking about the Southeast Asian influences that appear throughout the movie.
As mentioned in Part I , the new Disney movie features the company’s first Southeast Asian Disney princess Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran. Though the movie takes place in the fictional world of Kumandra, the inspiration behind Raya and her world comes from Southeast Asia and many of its cultures. The creators of the film even traveled to countries in Southeast Asia to learn about and connect with the region. The Raya team also formed the Raya Southeast Asian Story Trust, which was comprised of experts that consulted on the story and animation. For example, every name in the film went through a language expert and the textiles and food placed within the settings also were advised by the trust.
Here are some of the major themes and components of Raya and the Last Dragon that take inspiration from myths, traditions, and other cultural elements of Southeast Asian countries.
The Female Leads
Something unique about Raya and the Last Dragon is that the majority of its main characters are strong women. Raya is a determined female warrior who is joined by the female dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to save their world. One of their biggest foes is Namaari (Gemma Chan), a princess and warrior of the Fang region of Kumandra. Though Raya’s father and other male characters are integral to the story, the plot and conflict really fall on the women. When asked about her inspirations in writing the movie, screenwriter Adele Lim responded, “In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors. And leaders of their realms,” she continues, “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.” It’s clear that Raya is not only the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, she’s also a reflection of the tradition of female leaders in Southeast Asian stories and culture.
Sisu and Water Dragons
One of the biggest themes in Raya and the Last Dragon is water. All of the five regions of Kumandra are united by the water that runs through it and Sisu is very connected to water. Sisu notably says that her talent as a dragon is that she’s a good swimmer. In discussing how water and dragon elements appear in the setting of Kumandra, production designer Helen Chen explains:
For us the main unifying elements of Kumandra have always been the water and the dragon. In our movie, we have the river that links everybody together and throughout the movie, we see them traveling along this river to visit each of the different lands. So there’s a water element that really ties it together physically. Wherever we could, we wanted to keep the water elements in the sets as much as possible. Then beyond that, there is a universal reverence for the dragon. There are motifs in the film that are dragon inspired, but interpreted in each land’s particular way.
Sisu is partially inspired by the Naga, a serpent-like dragon found in many Southeast Asian cultures that is often associated with water. Qui Nguyen, another writer on the movie, speaks to how these dragons influenced Sisu’s character:
The East has a very strong love and affection for dragons, but these dragons are very different from what you see in ‘Game of Thrones,’ for example. They mean luck. They signify life-affirming powers and fortitude, and those aspects were important to expand on since Raya is a Southeast Asian-inspired hero. Sisu is highly revered and super powerful, but at the same time, we wanted to subvert our expectations of what a dragon could be like. So she’s funny. She’s goofy. She trips on herself. She’s new to the world. She’s new to what life is like now. There’s something charming and fun about her, and I think that she’s just a really fun comedic character to follow.
Raya is a well-trained warrior so the movie is bound to have its fair share of epic fight scenes. Screenwriter Qui Nguyen was also in charge of the martial arts that appears in the movie. While coordinating the scenes, he set to base the movements on real physics and for them to be accurate to fighting techniques that originated from Southeast Asia. He elaborates:
For me, the thing that I really wanted, being a lifelong martial artist, was basically that I wanted to make sure that our martial arts were correct. So often when you see a big action movie that is depicted with people who look like me and Adele, the martial arts can be just any combination of anything. Really, they could be made-up martial arts. But for this, it was very important that the moves that Namaari, Benja and Raya used were things that were based and rooted in Southeast Asian martial arts. Specifically, Pencak silat, Arnis and Muay Thai.
These are just some of the many ways Disney’s Raya and The Last Dragon incorporates the traditions and culture of countries of Southeast Asia. For the creators behind the movie who grew up in Southeast Asian families, these influences hit close to home. Writer Qui Nguyen expresses, “For me, being Asian-American with a Southeast Asian background, it was an opportunity to write a hero that my kids could look at and see that she looked like them, and she looked like their grandparents and their aunts and uncles…and me. It is a positive influence in their lives, especially in these very formative years where their self-esteem is being built.” Disney has really been focusing on capturing various cultures and traditions in their films such as in Moana (2016) and Soul (2020). For Nguyen, this is a chance for his kids to see empowered representations of themselves on screen. The creators of Raya and the Last Dragon hope that once it hits theaters and Disney+ other young viewers will have the same experience.
Raya and the Last Dragon comes to theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.