Raya and the Last Dragon Finds Magic in Southeast Asian Tradition

Sisu may not be what’s expected by a large portion of the audience that sits down to watch Raya and the Last Dragon next month. A long serpentine creature of watery origin, the dragon in the movie’s title does not breathe fire or lay waste to cities. Rather she’s a protector, a martyr who according to legend saved the mythical land of Kumandra 500 years ago. And when heroic loner Raya resurrects Sisu in the present, the lead character, plus her young fans, will discover greater layers still.

By virtue of Sisu’s voice casting alone, parents in the audience will know we’re a long way from Game of Thrones when they hear her speak. As voiced by Awkwafina, the dragon is funny, insecure, and ultimately gentle—a creature who hopes to be a hero one day but for the time being is more likely to enjoy running on raindrops all the way to the sky.

“The directors wanted Sisu as the dragon to look breathtakingly beautiful,” simulations supervisor Avneet Kauer says. “Her design is inspired by the mythical Nāga and was created to reflect just that. It symbolized her being larger than life and closer to how the Nāga are revered in the Southeast Asian lands. Her hair was meant to make her feel light and ethereal. It’s almost magical weightless motion, which accentuates her being divine and mystical.”

The emphasis on the Nāga is just one of the many ways Raya and the Last Dragon pays tribute to Southeast Asian culture, which to date has been largely ignored by Hollywood films and outright omitted from the Disney canon. In folklore, Nāga are divine or semi-divine beings who are half-human and half-serpent. Occasionally they can take human form but otherwise may appear as a giant water serpent, and are often depicted as dwelling in water. Also like the more typical dragons of Eastern culture, they can communicate with, lead, and protect humanity.

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Screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen spoke candidly about their resources about finding inspiration Southeast ASian lore.

Says Lim, “In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Nāga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. So [our inspirations are] 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.”

Nguyen adds, “In Vietnamese culture, there’s this really famous story of the Trung Sisters. They’re these famous Vietnamese warriors that I definitely thought of.” The pair in part of modern day Vietnam led an uprising in the first century C.E. against the Han Dynasty of imperial China. For a brief moment, they expelled dynastic rule.

Beyond mere story elements, Raya and the Last Dragon sought to avoid the pitfalls of Disney movies from decades past that borrowed (or appropriated) international cultures but then traded in stereotypes. As with the more progressive Moana before it, producer Osnat Shurer pushed Raya toward authenticity by developing the Southeast Asia Story Trust. This included meetings with Dr. S. Steve Arounsack, a visual anthropologist at California State University, as well as consultations with Indonesian linguists.

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Indeed, during a story presentation with Lim and Fawn Veerasunthorn, head of story at Walt Disney Animation Studios, the pair revealed how even the name “Raya” has special significance.

Says Lim, “We wanted a name that resonated across the multiple cultures in Southeast Asia, and we went through hundreds of names. But I remember there was that one moment when the name Raya came up, and Fawn and I had this emotional response to it. In Malay, it means ‘celebration’ and evokes this really joyful time where people come together around a lot of food.”

And to the writer’s surprise, Veerasunthorn also cited it having special meaning in the South of Thailand: “One who leads.” Pretty apt for their heroic lead character who traverses lush river lands and deserts in a conical hat.

There of course was further research, including the Southeast Asia Story Trust going on a whirlwind tour across the region, which involved stops in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Singapore. There are real-world influences for nearly everything, from the brim of Raya’s hat to the crest of Sisu’s mane. It’s also reflected in the architecture and landscapes of Raya and the Last Dragon’s fictional Kumandra. It’s even infused in the water markets in the film, evoking riverside commerce in Vietnam.

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However, what appeared to be the main desire was creating an authentic representation of the people and the culture.

“As a Southeast Asian woman, Raya’s character has a really special significance for me,” Lim says. “There’s a history of strong female leaders and warriors in the region, and I personally grew up in a family of really amazing women who inspire me and also scare me, just like a little bit, every day. So it’s important that Raya’s actions and her attitude really embody that same spirit.”

 Her co-writer Qui Nguyen—the author and playwright who pushed for Raya to use actual Southeast Asian martial arts techniques, such as Arnis and Muay Thai—meanwhile notes how refreshing it is to have characters like Raya appear in a big Hollywood production.

“When characters who look like me or Adele or my kids show up in action movies, we’re always depicted in one certain way,” Nguyen says. “Stoic, serious, oddly obsessed with ‘bringing honor to our family.’ So I’m super excited that Raya looks like me and Adele and my children, but what I’m even more excited about is she’s an action hero that actually sounds like us too. She’s fun, she’s quippy, she’s clever, she’s a character I’d be proud to see my kids emulate.”

Raya and the Last Dragon opens in theaters and via Disney+’s Premier Access on March 5.

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