‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ finds inspiration in the cultures, people of Southeast Asia

Kelly Marie Tran stars as Raya and comedian Awkwafina voices Sisu, a dragon that provides comic relief. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation StudiosKelly Marie Tran stars as Raya and comedian Awkwafina voices Sisu, a dragon that provides comic relief. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

WALT Disney Animation Studios’ new animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an exciting, epic journey about the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity.

Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.

Inspired by the various cultures and people of Southeast Asia, the imaginary lands of Kumandra in “Raya and the Last Dragon” each has its own customs and geography.

Although the film is a fantasy, Disney sought to ensure that the portrayals of the cultures that inspire the film are accurate and respectful. The creative team visited multiple countries in the region, including Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore, to conduct research.

Disney also enlisted experts to its Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust, who had a strong influence on all elements of the film. Dr. S. Steve Arounsack, professor of anthropology at California State University, Stanislaus, guided the creative team through the cultural inspiration behind the story. Husband and wife team Emiko Saraswati Susilo and I Dewa Putu Berata of Çudamani collaborated closely with the animators to create character movement inspired by the philosophies of Balinese dance and gamelan. Dr. Rebecca S. Hall, a curator at the University of Southern California’s Pacific Asia Museum, used her expertise in textiles to inform the design and colors of the characters’ clothing, like the sabai top and sampot pant, found in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. Dr. Juliana Wijaya, a linguist at UCLA’s Indonesian Studies Program, helped craft the characters’ names to have special meaning inspired by different Southeast Asian languages. Laos Angeles, an organization serving the Laotian community in Southern California, hosted a Baci ceremony to bless the production.

The attention to detail pays off in the rich portrayal of Kumandra. “You can see the inspiration in the terrain, the shapes in the movie, the fabrics people are wearing, and the colors used,” said Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran who voices Raya. “Disney is very meticulous about wanting to accurately represent the parts of the world their movies are about.”

In the film, characters sharing food together symbolizes trust and harmony. The scenes of Raya and her friends sitting around a table to enjoy meals together commemorates the way food is shared family-style in much of the region. In many Asian cuisines, there are five disparate flavors– spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter– that come together to create delicious meals. Communal meals also advance the characters’ journey towards becoming a team and the sense that if they trust each other and work together, they can achieve anything.

Kelly Marie Tran stars as Raya and comedian Awkwafina voices Sisu, a dragon that provides comic relief. | Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Southeast Asian martial arts are front and center in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” As a warrior princess and daughter of the chief of Heart, Raya’s fighting styles are inspired by Pencak Silat of Malaysia and Indonesia and Kali and Arnis of the Philippines. Other fighting techniques featured in the film are inspired by Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong of Thailand, multi-limbed attack styles from Muay Thai of Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, and the flying scissor-leg takedowns of Vietnam. Co-screenwriter Qui Nguyen acted as one of the film’s fight reference choreography consultants. “It was really important to me that the fighting styles were grounded in physics that are real,” he said.

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be released simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021.

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