It’s no secret that COVID-19 had a great effect on the film industry—movie theaters closing, endless film delays—but Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” managed to not only release amid the pandemic, but was made by its cast and crew working in over 400 homes.
Directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, producer Osnat Shurer, screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, along with stars Kelly Marie Tran (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu), Gemma Chan (Namaari), Daniel Dae Kim (Benja), Sandra Oh (Virana), Benedict Wong (Tong), Izaac Wang (Boun), and Thalia Tran (Little Noi) recently gathered over Zoom to discuss their new film, its timely importance in our current world, and the challenges of creating the feature from home.
Now in theaters and available via Disney Plus Premium Access, “Raya and the Last Dragon” sees the titular heroine set out to track down the legendary last dragon, Sisu to help restore the fractured five lands of Kumandra and bring its divided people together. The film is a story of trust, prejudice, and learning to come together in spite of it to form a better world.
Kim was the first to admit that recording his lines from home wasn’t as easy as it sounded, and that technical difficulties were sometimes a hazard of the “office.”
“It was amazing actually being able to record from home, because, living in Hawaii, any time I try and travel to go shoot something, it’s at least five hours and sometimes 11 by plane. So, to be able to walk downstairs in my T-shirt and shorts was pretty great,” said Kim. Although, I will have to say, it wasn’t without hiccups […] in one of my very first sessions from home, most of his dialogue where he’s talking about Kumandra and establishing a relationship with Raya went missing […] I recorded for an hour. We did some great stuff. And at the end of the hour, we were supposed to upload our packets to Team Disney. And as I was uploading my packet, I realized that I had recorded none of that past hour. So this is what happens when you leave the recording and the technical stuff to the actors. So, we lost that hour, but I learned my lesson. And, it was kind of hassle-free the rest of the way.”
Even though the cast wasn’t able to record lines together in the booth, Kelly Marie Tran credited the film’s crew for making everyone’s performances work together.
“Honestly, I feel like all the credit has to go to […] all of the incredible team behind the movie because all of the actors, at least in my experience, were all isolated, and we were recording by ourselves,” she said. “To have seen the movie now totally finished and to see all the chemistry that these incredible characters have, I think that says a lot about the expertise of Disney animation and the incredible talent working behind this movie, and also about the cast, obviously.”
For Nguyen, the connection between the actors and the material also represents how much this film means for Southeast Asian representation, and how important it will be for children to see on the big screen.
“I think we’re all aware what this kind of movie with heroes that look like this will mean to so many kids and families out there,” said Nguyen. “To have such an A-class group of actors, and to be able to be representatives of that to so many kids is such a dream come true for not just us as filmmakers but just for, honestly, the community.”
This hope was felt consistently throughout the entire cast. Many shared that the themes of “Raya” and the characters’ emotional journeys, although they are timeless, could not have come at a better time.
“What I appreciate about […] our characters is that they’re complex. There’s no black and white in these characters, which I greatly appreciated,” said Oh. “I was extremely moved by the message of this film because I feel myself struggling to learn how to trust as well. So to play a section of the film where it seems we are antagonists or the people who are struggling to take power, who are the powerful people, I feel like the storytelling and the characters […] has a very nuanced and more complex look at things, which is where I feel like we need to bring storytelling anyway.”
“[Namaari] and Raya are also kind of two sides of the same coin. You could imagine them having each other’s upbringings and easily taking each other’s place,” said Chan, reflecting on what Oh had said. “I feel like, our world is complex, and the problems of the world are only going to start to begin to be solved if we all work together, and the lack of trust and the division is a huge problem […] I think these are really complex themes to explore in a family film […] And I think it couldn’t come at a more timely moment for where we are and the position we’re in in the world right now.”
Thinking more on Raya and Namaari’s complicated relationship in the film, both Chan and Kelly Marie Tran found the characters to be a perfect representation for overcoming your biases and how they are learned.
“When I really think about my life when things like that have happened to me, I think about just how difficult it is to get out of your own biases when you’re looking at someone who you see as an enemy and then just how incredibly, by the end of the story, Raya and Namaari are then suddenly willing to step outside of themselves,” said Kelly Marie Tran. “They risk everything for this idea of community, this idea of what their relationship could have been this entire time.”
“it kind of shows how when we’re young and as children we don’t inherently hate each other. It’s something that is learned. It’s something that comes through whether it’s from a parental or family influence, or from your particular tribe,” added Chan. “Those things are learned, whereas, you know, kids get on. I think that’s something to take from the movie that those things can be learned, but they can be unlearned as well.”
Toward the end of the panel, screenwriter Lim shared her thoughts on the importance of a film that is rooted in learning trust, jam-packed with a representative cast, and what that means at a point where violence and hatred against the Asian American community is all too prevalent:
“Kumandra is an entirely, fantastical, fictional land, but it was very important to the filmmakers that the troubles that that land faces and the journey that Raya goes on, the struggles she faces, are rooted very much in the real world; the problems that we’re facing in terms of division. But it was particularly important that the way Raya goes about trying to solve this is also reflected in reality,” she said. “It is not an easy thing […] That it is something that you keep doing […] because it is the only way we are going to be able to move forward in this world together. And particularly, with everything that’s been happening in this last year, the violence towards Asian Americans, seeing each other as the other, words have power and words have the power to paint people in a different light. They have the power to bring us together. So, hopefully, this movie is our word, and our message to the world of let’s pull together.”
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” is in theaters now and streaming on Disney+ via Premier Access. You can watch the trailer for the film below and read our spoiler-free review here.