How The 'Raya And The Last Dragon' Fight Scenes Draw From Hong Kong Action Films [Interview]

Raya and the Last Dragon came out at a charged time. In March 2021, the anti-Asian violence instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic was reaching a new peak, just as Disney was releasing its first Southeast Asian-inspired animated film in theaters and on Disney+. Now, Raya and the Last Dragon's home video release on Blu-ray and DVD comes as the anti-Asian hate has far from diminished, and screenwriter Qui Nguyen is aware of both the pressure that puts on the animated film, as well as its perhaps naive message of trust.

"It's one thing to say, 'Hey, fix the world, all you have to do is trust each other," Nguyen told /Film in an interview ahead of the film's Blu-ray, 4K, and DVD release. "But with that said, I do feel particularly lucky that the one thing that we get to add to the conversation is a voice of hope, and a voice of what we hope that the world can do to make it a better place."

But that didn't stop the film from impressing even the most hardened Disney cynics, who praised the film's stunning animation and thrilling fight scenes. /Film sat down with Nguyen as well as director Don Hall and screenwriter Adele Lim to talk about the timing of Raya and the Last Dragon's release, and how the intense fight scenes drew from Hong Kong action movies and Star Wars.

Raya's release, both in March on Disney+ and now on home video, comes at a very charged time with the rise in anti-Asian violence. How do you hope Raya's message of trust and community will resonate in this current climate?

Qui Nguyen: Well, I mean, much like what the characters of Raya are going through, it definitely hard. When we first were putting this movie together... it's one thing to say, "Hey, fix the world, all you have to do is trust each other." But I think the important thing that we have to honor is how friggin' hard it is to do that, and especially in moments like these when you're seeing people that look like myself and like Adele [Lim] and like our families being attacked, it's hard to just suddenly turn the other cheek.

But with that said, I do feel particularly lucky that the one thing that we get to add to the conversation is a voice of hope, and a voice of what we hope that the world can do to make it a better place. That the people that are higher influenced by it, that are the potential for our future — our children — get to have this and be able to have conversations about this. Because I think that the movies that we've made in the past like Big Hero 6, that allowed us to talk about grief, and Zootopia that allowed us talk about bias. It's amazing that Raya, gave us a chance to talk about the moment that we're living in right now, and this was even before — I mean, there was the violence issue, but the country was already kind of fractured — and we were living with the existential crisis COVID, much like our characters are living in a world full of Druun. And it was something that my kids inherently understood, and it was interesting to be able to have those conversations around the dinner table, because of this film. And that's something I feel very fortunate that we were able to offer to the world.

So like every movie, Raya and the Last Dragon received its fair share of criticism after its release. Adele, I know you've spoken about this at length before and after the release of Raya, but I want to bring up again the criticisms against the movie's SE Asian representation, namely the casting. We don't need to relitigate the whole discussion, but I want to ask: in is there more that can be done in the future in other Disney films and family films?

Adele Lim: With all the discussions, it's not anything that we shy from it's not anything that we fear. I think the issue with it, is that because there are so few opportunities to see our culture celebrated, and that's why it comes under a microscope and that's why it gets the attention that it does. And what I hope for the future, is that there are so many more projects, whether it's TV, film, musical artists out there so that we are able to fill out the entire multifaceted universe of who we are, so that one movie doesn't have to carry the burden of representation for an entire region.

Don Hall: Yeah, also, with places like Disney+. In streaming, the need for content, the need for stories is so great and profound, and the desire to fill those stories or experience them through a diverse lens of representation is also profound, and is top of mind. So, I think you'll be seeing a lot of diversity and representation across all kinds of stories in the future. And because there's going to be so many more stories, to Adele's point, it's not just one movie a year, type of thing. Because of this amazing thing like Disney+, there's so many stories, there's so much content, people want more stories and I think that that's really a good thing.

So I want to talk about the particulars of Raya and the Last Dragon, particularly the fight scenes. Don, before the movie's release, you said, mostly in jest, about how Raya might have been R-rated, but those fight scenes are intense enough to be convincing. And Carlos actually told me earlier that test audiences didn't react to those scenes the way you thought they would. Did you think about pressing harder with the fights once you got that validation from the test screenings?

Hall: [Laughs] I think we felt comfortable because I think ultimately we knew that they weren't like baby fights. There was an intensity to them that was there and story-appropriate, because that was also the thing we want: they couldn't be obligatory, they had to mean something. And we knew that a lot of the fights were going to center around the Raya-Namaari relationship, that was what we were profiling. So I don't recall us saying, let's push harder into R-rated or PG-13 territory, but I think what it did is it just gave us peace of mind that we didn't go too far. Because you just never know, especially with your parents and kids and what that line is where people are comfortable with violence, and we certainly don't want to glorify it, because I don't think we did. Because they did have a story purposes, they weren't obligatory, and so it was appropriate for what the characters were feeling in those moments. And especially that last one, I mean it's...you know? There's nothing left to fight for, between Raya or Namaari. They're both coming at it from a place of really deep, deep pain and deep loss, and it had to reflect that. And I'm really proud of that fight, I love that fight [Laughs]. Because it's just also the lighting and — I could geek out about it, but anyway.

Geek out, please!

Hall: Well, we played a lot with silhouettes too, and the juxtaposition of close-ups versus wide shots, and we really kind of crafted that. We wanted it to have that gravitas of like Luke and Darth Vader fighting you know in Star Wars, because to us that's what it was. It was these two titans going at it, and with nothing left to lose and it had to reflect that. So anyway, we're very proud of that.

Did you study a lot of live action like scenes too because it felt to me that there was sort of a groundedness to those scenes, especially in those wide shots, allowing the action to play out. And Qui, as the resident Southeast Asian martial arts expert, did you have input on how the fights were blocked?

Nguyen: Oh yeah, it was in the script itself, like which martial arts, what weapons they were going to have in their hands, what positions they got into, who's fighting with what form. When it comes to study, of course all the influences from Hong Kong, like the Bruce Lee films to Tony Jaa — all those martial art artists, they absolutely feed into it. As well as American filmmakers like Spielberg and Danny Boyle, and things that tell us the kind of frenetic energy that needs to be in it. There's things that we learn quickly in the making an animated martial arts fight, it's very different than a lot of live-action martial arts fight. You know, when choreographing to live people, you can't punch them dead center in the face, and in an animated film you totally can. And so it was like things that we learned right away, that we were like, "Oh, I know we can do it but maybe we don't do it," and it was stuff like that, that we learn that was maybe stepping too far into it. But by doing so, we were all sort of realized, "Oh well, we're going to shoot an action film, let's shoot it like an action film." Let's shoot them like they are live actors and use those camera shots and the low angles, and the moving cameras, and stuff like that to really bring out the frenetic energy of [a visual] language that we already understand and know inherently because of the work of other great filmmakers.

And so that was super fun, but I will say that it's not easy, putting a fight together with all these folks because everyone is so opinionated. I just remember a very distinct moment where Namaari elbows Raya in the face, but before she gets there, she has to run up to her. And [co-director] John Ripa is like, "Why do we have to watch the run? I don't want to see the run, I just want to see the punch, can we just get there and get to the punch?" And it was like, "Okay, we'll just cut the run!" Oh my God, it was every little detail. Usually when you choreograph a fight, you just choreograph the fight, you show it to the director and they go, "Cool," and then we shoot it. Here, because the director has so much control of every single little frame, you choreograph the fight, but then they have a power that live action directors tend to not actually have. Like Don and Carlos and John and [co-director] Paul Briggs can really break every moment down frame by frame, in a way that you can't really in a live-action. In a live-action, here's the choreographed fight, [the director can] reverse the angle we shot it [at], speed up, cut a little bit of it out, but you can't suddenly change a punch to a kick in the middle of the things that you've already shot. And so that was super fun negotiating all those things and geeking out over fights.

Hall: Then you factor in the animators. Like, even when we were in the building before COVID hit, we had started to work on the choreography of those fights. And the animators had started to work on the fights with [stunt coordinator] Maggie Macdonald and whomever was in there choreographing the fights, and they would be almost directing them as well. We would be there, but then the animators were also there in making sure that they got what they needed out of it too. So yeah, there was a lot of a lot of cooks in that kitchen.

I know we're speaking ahead of the home video release for Raya. But now that vaccines are rolling out and theaters are reopening, do you hope that a larger big-screen release for Raya might happen?

Hall: I think we're thankful that the film has multiple places you can see it right now — on home video, Disney+ — but certainly, it's still in theaters and, for the folks that feel comfortable now that people are getting more and more vaccinated, I would love for them to go to the theater and experience that. Because it's a big movie and it's beautiful up on that big screen. It's beautiful on smaller screens too, but yeah I think it'd be great if people sought it out in theaters.

Lim: It's good to have your cake and eat it too, because we have friends who are just like their kids have watched it nine times and it's great that it's at home, you can like just pop it in whenever. But selfishly, for me, I haven't been to a theater outside to watch it, I just got a new TV and I'm now only seeing new details about it that I didn't see before. I can't wait to be able to go back into the theater again to be able to appreciate it the way it was meant to be, and to take my kids. Hopefully people who connect with the movie will want to see it, you know, the way it was meant to be.

Nguyen: Yeah, I saw it for the first time [in theaters], just a couple of weeks ago with my family — the old TV show I used to write on, they bought out a theater for us. I've seen it a lot of times, and I cried for the first time in a long time, because I hadn't seen it on this big screen, and my kids were blown away by it. It was truly magical. So I kind of hope people see it in a movie theater, did you know I mean I'm glad that it's available in all those mediums, but it is, the way it's meant to be seen.

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Raya and the Last Dragon is out now on 4K, Blu-ray and DVD.