The Last Is Not Least: Disney’s Animated Feature Raya and the Last Dragon Soars

Image courtesy: Walt Disney Animation Studios (from official poster)

Though its opening line was written several years before the current pandemic, Disney’s newest film begins on a disturbingly apropos note. “I know what you’re thinking: a lone rider, a dystopian world, a land that’s gone to waste,” a woman’s narration intones amid visuals of a masked female figure riding through barren terrain. “How did this world get so broken?”

Plenty of comedic moments still abound in Raya and the Last Dragon, directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, opening March 5. Yet our current moment feels eerily reflected in the PG-rated film’s premise: an ancient curse has turned countless people in the land of Kumandra into stone. Solidified humans dot the landscape throughout the film.

This isn’t your grandparents’ Disney.

Yet in some ways, it still is. The studio has created a despairing pandemic allegory which also features an entire scene where the two main characters have to escape a hive of exploding flatulent insects called “toot-and-booms.” Children of Men, meet Adam Sandler.

Production challenges in quarantine

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly affected the film’s production, for example by requiring the voice actors to record their lines at home.

“‘Go to your closet, put your clothes behind you and your mic in front of you,’” producer Osnat Shurer describes instructing her voice cast. “One of them delivered all their lines perfectly, but he forgot to press record and sent us an empty file!” Shurer laughs, wisely not revealing which cast member committed this faux pas (though it can be narrowed down to a male). “Awkwafina recorded in her living room but the sound bounced off her walls, so we literally sent her a tent.”

Similar challenges arose for the music, composed by six-time Academy Award Best Original Score nominee James Newton Howard. “We’re lucky that he is a miracle worker. He mocks it up really well. You think you’re hearing a full orchestra,” Shurer says, revealing the recording workaround implemented due to social distancing restrictions. “Horns and woodwinds each had to have their own day. London choir, same thing.”

The end credits include a special shoutout to the entire crew and production team for working on the film from more than 400 individual residences.

In a world…

Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), is a fierce teenage warrior from the fictional southeast Asian world of Kumandra. Sisudatu, nicknamed Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8, The Farewell), is a sardonic, wisecracking dragon, the only remaining one of her kind. Sisu has existed for centuries only in spirit form, waiting for someone to bring her to life. When Raya does so, setting the film’s adventure in motion, a key part of her monologue was improvised.

“If you know our process, we put so much work into writing, storyboarding, rewriting, re-storyboarding, it really goes through the gauntlet. So by the time of the recording booth, the scene is pretty worked out. But as directors, you need to foster an environment where it’s okay to experiment and change,” says Hall, who previously directed Big Hero 6 and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. “Kelly Marie improvised some of her dramatic confessional when she’s looking for Sisu, begging her to show up. She said, ‘I have an idea.’ We said, ‘Let’s try it.’”

“Sisudatu… I don’t know if you’re listening,” Raya pleads in the final cut, in barely more than a whisper. “I’ve searched every river to find you, and now I’m here at the very last one. Look, there’s not a lot of us left, and we really… we really need your help. If I could be honest, I really need your help. I made a mistake. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have, and now the world is broken.”

After reawakening Sisu, the two title characters form a buddy cop-style duo reminiscent of other Disney animated modern classics, such as Moana/Maui or Mulan/Mushu. “Raya and the last dragon” team up to reunite all five pieces of the glowing orb called the Dragon Gem. When fully intact, it repels the purple monsters called Druun that haunt Kumandra, turning any human they touch into stone—including Raya’s father, Chief Benja.

A fighting chance

Each piece of the gem is possessed by one of Kumandra’s five warring lands, all named after a part of dragon anatomy: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. As Raya and Sisu travel to each of the five lands, battling their way past armed guards and other traps, the choreographed fight scenes involve far more nuance than the casual viewer would likely recognize. The filmmakers made a conscious effort to amalgamate the martial arts of various southeast Asian cultures.

 “Raya comes from the warrior class, [so] it’s a little bit more royal. They had time to really develop their craft, so I wanted martial arts that were very complex,” explains co-screenwriter and fight reference choreographer Qui Nguyen. “[So we used] pencak silat and arnis, her weapons form. Those two sticks she has are called eskrima, based in Filipino martial arts. The hand-to-hand martial art she does is called pencak silat, which is kind of like kung fu but much more complex. It has a low stance, based on animal forms.”

That same level of thought extended to other characters. “For her nemesis Numaari, I wanted something that was super hard-hitting, that emphasized brutal punches and kicks, which was Muay Thai. It’s like kickboxing. And then there’s a couple surprise moves, like the double leg scissor takedown that she does, which is based on traditional Vietnamese wrestling,” Nguyen continues. “So it was really thought out, between those two characters in particular, how those forms would clash and complement each other.”

Cast of characters

In each of the lands on their quest, Raya and Sisu add one misfit denizen to their squad: fighting baby Noi from Talon, 10-year-old constant salesman and budding entrepreneur Boun of Tail, and the gigantic yet goofy giant Tong from Spine. The predominantly Asian-American or Asian-British voice cast, including Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Killing Eve”) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War), infuse elements of their demographic identities in their performances: a respect for Asian heritage and tradition, alongside uniquely modern Western phrases as “super sketchy” and “here’s the sitch” inserted into the ancient setting.

A debate has emerged online among the hardcore Disney fandom about whether Raya constitutes a Disney “princess” or “heroine.” Disney lists 12 official princesses, including such 21st century additions as Merida from Brave, Rapunzel from Tangled, and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. While they don’t list Raya, at least not yet, producer Shurer settles this debate once and for all.

“I have a definitive answer. She’s the daughter of the chief, and as such is a princess,” Shurer affirms, noting that two other official Disney princesses are daughters of tribal chiefs: Pocahontas and Moana. “This is actually something we debated. Just because she’s a strong female hero doesn’t mean she had to be a princess. But we decided we wanted her to be a princess because it’s a story about leading, about taking responsibility, about standing for what you believe in. That said, she probably thinks of herself way more as a warrior than anything else.”

Committing to the big screen

The film will debut simultaneously in cinemas and on Disney+ for an additional $30 fee to subscribers. While less than exclusively theatrical, this nonetheless represents welcome news for the exhibition industry. In recent years, no studio has brought in more customers and dollars for exhibitors than Disney, which led the domestic box office for four consecutive years in 2016 ($2.9 billion), 2017 ($2.3 billion), 2018 ($3.1 billion), and 2019 ($3.7 billion).

Universal and Warner Bros. have each released post-pandemic titles theatrically, whether exclusively or as part of a simultaneous streaming debut. But Disney’s last movie released theatrically? If you count Disney subsidiary Searchlight Pictures, the only new film the studio has released to theaters so far this year has been awards hopeful Nomadland. Or if you only count movies released under the Disney name, you have to go back a full year to Onward last March.

Cinemas want films from other studios. But they need Disney.

That’s why Disney will include a theatrical exclusive to entice audiences to the big screen: the new original seven-minute animated short Us Again playing before the movie. This will be the first short to play before a Walt Disney Animation Studios film since 2016’s Inner Workings, screened before Moana.

The dialogue-free Us Again follows an elderly couple who dances to a 1960s style funk and soul soundtrack across a rainy nighttime cityscape, manifesting onscreen as their much younger selves from the time when they first met. The short won’t debut on Disney+ until June.

The short feature just adds to the experience. The main feature, with its gorgeous animation and epic scope, deserves to be seen on the big screen purely on its own merits.

“That’s how I saw movies as a kid: going into a darkened room with a bunch of other people and experiencing a story. It’s foundational,” says Hall. “That said, we’re also excited to have another place where people can see the film. But for the test screening process, we watched it in a theater. There’s something crazy that happens in a theater, where you’re mind melding with potentially hundreds of people. It’s just different.”


AT THE MOVIES

What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience? 

Carlos López Estrada, co-director: “Pinocchio. It was the movie I saw the most growing up, on VHS. To this day, many of my mom’s friends who saw me grow up refer to me as ‘Pinocho’ because I couldn’t pronounce it.”

Qui Nguyen, co-screenwriter: “Ghostbusters. I saw it with my best friend in ‘84. It was the first time I ever saw an action movie that wasn’t just straight down the middle. ‘It’s an action movie where they fight ghosts, but the main characters are funny!’”

Adele Lim, co-screenwriter: “When I was 11 years old, watching Coming to America with my family in England. I was too young for it, but my family snuck me in anyway. Growing up in Malaysia, that was my first exposure to the American Dream.”

Osnat Shurer, producer: “I had just come to New York. After growing up in Israel, I went to film school at NYU. I was walking around town, went into a movie theater, and watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It was just this moment of, ‘Yes, I’m in the right place, doing the right thing.’”

What is your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?

Lim: “Malaysian movie snacks are way better than over here! Over there, you can get seaweed snacks.”

Shurer: “I’m totally old school. It’s all about popcorn and large amounts of it, with ridiculous amounts of butter. But in Israel, we’re into nuts and roasted sunflower seeds and fruits.”

Estrada: “Twizzlers and Swedish fish, all the stuff that comes together as a big mash of plastic looking in your stomach. In Mexico, we have the exact same snacks as in the U.S., but you put hot sauce on everything!”

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