'Raya And The Last Dragon' Directors And Screenwriter On The Melting Pot Of Southeast Asian Influences In The New Disney Film [Interview]

Raya and the Last Dragon is being billed as Disney's next big leap in representation, as it takes place in a fantasy world heavily inspired by Southeast Asia and featuring the House of Mouse's first Southeast Asian princess. But where do the lines of authenticity starts to blur? Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fictional world of Kumandra, inspired by a number of Southeast Asian countries and dozens of cultures. It's the same route that Disney took with Moana, a film generally inspired by Polynesian cultures. And the Raya and the Last Dragon team hope to pull off the same homage to a rich and diverse region with a Southeast Asian writing team, featuring Malaysian writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asiansand Vietnamese writer Qui Nguyen (Vietgone), and a team of consultants and experts that make up the film's Southeast Asian Story Trust.

"The way we approach [the film] is in terms of celebrating and lifting, [and] being really inspired by [Southeast Asian cultures]," director Carlos López Estrada told /Film in an interview on a Raya and the Last Dragon press day.

"I often equate it to like Excalibur," added Nguyen. "Like to the Arthurian legend or like Game of Thrones where they're pulling it from a lot of European things, not specifically Britain or Ireland or anything like that, it's kind of a melting pot of European stories. It was such a pleasure to be able to create our own legend, our own fantasy, our own hero, based on cultures of a certain land and the whole movie, the theme of it, is about different people coming together."

Read our full interview with Estrada, Nguyen, and director Don Hall below.

In the five years since this story started being developed, why was Southeast Asia the geographic area that was honed in on as the ideal cultural inspiration for Kumandra in Raya and the Last Dragon?Don Hall: As you noted, the film has been going for what five years, six years now. We came on about a year and a half ago and I think for us, the inspiration to really do a deep dive into Southeast Asia, even though it's a fantasy film, it felt very important for us to do as much research as possible into Southeast Asia. But I think for us what it did is it was a unique culture and landscape that we really hadn't seen [in] a big Disney movie. So, it felt fresh and unique to build our fantasy world out of Southeast Asian inspiration.Carlos Lopez Estrada: And the other thing that I think was there from the very beginning when our predecessors were [exploring] when we joined was that Southeast Asia — I mean obviously the cultures in Southeast Asia are incredibly beautiful and unique. They hadn't been explored as Don mentioned in Disney movie, but also the diversity within the region was, I think, very, very important. And, and it was something we knew in Kumandra we wanted to have similar type of diversity of culture, of peoples, of flavors of our lands. And that's what allowed us to create a world that was deeply inspired by these cultures. And within the land of Kumandra you're able to see this diversity in each of the lands that we travel throughout our movie, so you'll see it in the food and the clothing. That was what the movie was about, it was about unity, it's about the lands of very different kinds of people coming together. And I think we just couldn't have thought of a better region to set the story and it really informed every single creative decision that we made throughout the entire process. As you probably heard we had a cultural team that was really working with us closely to make sure that we could showcase this diversity in the movie.Qui Nguyen: And personally I think that, with Adele and myself, it's just a pleasure to see the culture that we come from be celebrated in a big Disney film. Like, there have been movies about Southeast Asia, but you've never seen it at this scale. And seeing it come from Walt Disney, I think it'll help our children be inspired and to be proud of the cultures that they come from, that was something that felt very important to us.So, Qui, I actually went to see your play Vietgone when it was playing in D.C., but I made the mistake of seeing it with my parents, which made for a very awkward experience. But I wanted to ask, as a Vietnamese screenwriter on this film, were there any particular specificities of Vietnamese culture that you brought into the script?Nguyen: Absolutely. I think Adele, who's Malaysian; myself; [Head of Story] Fawn [Veerasunthorn], who's Thai; the other people on our team who have Filipino descent and Indonesian descent, we all were trying to do things to homage the cultures onscreen that you never get to see onscreen. And you see it in the sounds that are very familiar, to the foods that show up on the table, to the architecture, to boats... I think one of my favorite stories was the moment that my youngest son — I have a big NDA, I'm not supposed to show this to my family — but he totally caught a glimpse of Raya and Namaari and immediately was like, "Hey, they look like Ba Ngoi, Ong Noi, [Vietnamese terms for paternal grandfather and grandmother]." That's his grandparents, we have some young pictures of them are in the house and to have that be reflected to them meant the world to me.I wanted to bring up some criticisms brought up online about how Raya was a melting pot of SE Asian influences, and not a specific one. Was there a concern that by picking and choosing various aspects of the 11 or so Southeast Asian countries, and the dozens more cultures, Raya would be less impactful as a valuable piece of representation onscreen?Hall: I don't recall any reservations on our part and, actually, it felt like the best way to honor the region was to pull from as many of the different cultures as we could. And I'm actually really proud of the movie in that in that it does, I think, do great justice to all that inspiration and the research that we did. It's in every frame of the film. It's just baked in, and I'm very proud of how it represents all the cultures that we that we pulled from.Nguyen: Yeah, I often equate it to like Excalibur. Like to the Arthurian legend or like Game of Thrones where they're pulling it from a lot of European things, not specifically Britain or Ireland or anything like that, it's kind of a melting pot of European stories. It was such a pleasure to be able to create our own legend, our own fantasy, our own hero, based on cultures of a certain land and the whole movie, the theme of it, is about different people coming together. And I think that that's actually what makes our movie so unique, is that it is accepting that a whole bunch of different people with unique perspectives that sometimes clashed into each other, and how we use trust to come together for a greater good, to find our commonality, to find our unity. I think that that was the bigger thing that we're working towards.Estrada: I think for me it's like — I'm not Southeast Asian, I was born in Mexico — but we have a similar sort of community in Latin America, and I feel like that is the closest that I have to relate to this idea. For example for me. I do think I value espeially my Mexican identity, but I also feel like the cultures of Latin America share something common: they share foods, they share languages, they share just a lot of culture. And I feel an affinity for these countries and these peoples that that I think also is very important, very special. So I don't know, I would be equally as excited to see a movie that celebrates my specific culture of Mexico, but also the culture that Latin America. So I feel like there's a way — and the way we approach that is in terms of celebrating and lifting, being really inspired by, rather than just picking and choosing, and to say like, "Oh, we don't have to commit to anything, let's just use what matters."On that note, the main voice cast of this film, with the exception of Kelly-Marie Tran — of the roles that we've seen so far — are performed by actors who are of Asian descent, but not necessarily of Southeast Asian descent. Was that also a discussion that was had, whether you wanted to focus on casting actors mostly Southeast Asian descent, or was it just kind of fair game for the voice acting roles?Estrada: We actually have quite a few minor supporting roles [with] Southeast Asian specific actors that are perfect for the roles, but I think what we're most excited is that we were able to find, across our cast, we were able to find the perfect people for each role. And the actors really fully embodied the characters that we were trying to build, in terms of personal philosophy, in terms of acting skills, in terms of like their connection to the role and the material. And, of course there was a great deal of thought put into the casting process, because going to be working with these people — in some cases, like Awkwafina — three plus years. So there was a great deal of thought put into it.

But we honestly just could not be happier and more proud with the people that are telling these stories because they have such deep personal connections to the movie, to the material, to the characters. And the more you dig into them, like Isaac who plays Boun, for example, after casting, we realized that his mother had been in a Baci ceremony that was performed by a Laos community in the studio. And this was like, just completely kismet. And like that, Daniel Dae Kim, for example, who plays Benja, really has a prominent role in the Asian-American community and his role he's taken as a humanitarian and as a social leader. So I really think that every one of these of these actors really, really embraced the responsibility that they have and the connection that they have with these characters. And we just cannot be more happy.

Nguyen: Each of the actors are inspiring figures in the greater Asian American community. It's really been a dream to have them represent the characters that we worked so hard to craft on the page.


Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on March 5, 2021.