There’s never been a film like Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. More specifically, there’s never been a film that has done, or even tried to do, what Raya is trying to do. In creating Disney’s first Southeast Asian centered film, Raya’s creators took on the monumental task of developing a fantasy world that seeks to authentically blend several Southeast Asian cultures, and tell a universal story about trust and community. On top of all that, Raya also happens to be the rare blockbuster film where the three of the most important characters are women.
Recently, Disney hosted an early press day for Raya and the Last Dragon, highlighting the incredible creative team behind the film, and finally announcing the star-studded cast lending their voices to the animated project.
The Cast and Crew of Raya Revealed
First and foremost, the rest of the main voice cast was finally revealed. While Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina were announced as voicing the two main characters, Raya and the dragon Sisu respectively, last August, the rest of the voices remained a mystery. At the press day, the following major characters and their voice cast were announced:
Namaari – Raya’s rival and one of the main antagonists of the story, voiced by Gemma Chan.
Benja – Raya’s father and guardian of the Dragon Gem, voiced by Daniel Dae Kim.
Tuk Tuk – Raya’s best friend, steed and part pill bug/part pug, voiced by Alan Tudyk.
Boun – A precocious street kid who eventually teams up with Raya, voiced by Izaac Wang.
Noi – A 2-year-old toddler and street hustler (it’s hard to explain without seeing her in action), voiced by Thalia Tran.
Tong – A fierce woodsman with a soft spot for kids who joins Raya on her journey, voiced by Benedict Wong.
Disney also provided a screening of about 30 minutes of footage cut together from the first half of the film. In that footage, each of the newly announced members are seen joining Raya in her quest. My initial impressions on the footage can be found on my Twitter feed.
Disney has put together an incredibly talented voice cast for Raya, consisting of some of the top Asian actors in the industry today. Their star power, name recognition and talent are undeniable, but I do wish more of the main cast was made up of Southeast Asian actors, given the nature of the film. The main cast does include Kelly Marie Tran, Thalia Tran and Izaac Wang (whose mother is a traditional Laos dancer), and beyond the on-screen representation, Disney brought on Adele Lim (Malaysian-American) and Qui Nguyen ( Vietnamese-American) as writers and Fawn Veerasunthorn (Thai-American) as the Head of Story.
Another unique and important step that Disney took to ensure that Raya would tell an authentically Southeast Asian story was to put together a Southeast Asian Story Trust to actively consult in the film’s development. The Story Trust was led by Dr. S. Steve Arounsack, an anthropology professor with 25 years of research experience in Southeast Asia. Additional members of the Story Trust include Emiko Susilo (choreographer), Juliana Wijaya (linguist), Dewa Berata (Gamelan musician), Nathakrit “Tatan” Sunthareerat (architect), and Jes Vu (cultural consultant).
Trust and Representation in Raya
Throughout press day, the creators behind Raya and the Last Dragon were unified in the themes and messages that they hoped to communicate through this film. Producer Osnat Shurer, who also worked on Moana, described Raya as “a story about trust, and it’s a story about people doing what’s needed to come together.” Writer Qui Nguyen echoed Shurer’s statements, explaining that trust is the key element that brings the story together. “This movie has a lot of magic in it, but I think the biggest piece of magic in it is trust,” Nguyen said. “It is the real secret ingredient that will save our fictional world of Kumandra, and it’s a message I think is really important for the world to have and see.”
Adele Lim, who also co-wrote the script, noted that the dragon Sisu in particular represents the kind of trust that the human characters in the story need; and maybe those in the real world can be inspired by it as well. “[T]he magical thing about Sisu, in this movie, is that she has that trust and that faith in humanity, even when we don’t deserve it. Even when we betray it. Even when we let each other down again and again,” Lim said. “But some creature like Sisu being able to see that sort of divine core within everybody is the thing that inspires everyone. I hope that’s what people come away with when they see Sisu.”
While Raya is a story with a universal message about trust, the creators emphasized that it was a story being told through a Southeast Asian lens, with Southeast Asian voices and Southeast Asian sensibilities. In developing the character of Raya, Lim referenced the “great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors” in Southeast Asia. In addition to the cultural inspirations, Nguyen drew upon his personal experiences with his own mother. “I know what she had to go through when she came to this country, and just to have that kind of fighting spirit. Just the kind of energy that our people have that you don’t always get to display on screen. It was important for us to show the real spirit of Southeast Asia out there,” Nguyen said.
Representation being such an important part of what this very site is based on, I had the opportunity to ask both Lim and Nguyen how much this film means to them, and unsurprisingly, it was clear how much of a passion project Raya represents. For Nguyen, his focus was on the impact this film would have on his children:
Well, for me, this is the big dream. I know that a lot of people are super excited about Raya being Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. But, for me, it is such a big deal for her to be my kids’ new favorite superhero. It is something that I didn’t get to see growing up, someone that really represented me, our voice, our culture. And to be able to have that for my children is a blessing that will last way beyond my time here on earth. So, it’s an amazing moment to be part of this.Qui Nguyen
Lim recalled the dearth of representation in Hollywood as she was growing up in Malaysia and views Raya as an opportunity to share the beauty of her culture with the rest of the world:
There are so many other things too. We talked a bit about it, but growing up in Southeast Asia, we’re very proud of our culture and our history. But you don’t really ever see it on a Hollywood big screen. I had lots of action heroes on screen growing up, but it was like Hong Kong action kung fu. And now, the idea to be part of a Disney movie that really can celebrate everything that’s beautiful about our culture and how strong our women are is great. And that Raya’s not just an ass-kicker. She’s got so much personality. I feel that it’s so much of the spirit of a lot of the women I grew up with. And so, I’m very excited for the world to see this too.Adele Lim
Raya and the Last Dragon premieres on Disney+ on March 5th via premier access!
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.