Whether it hails from Pixar or Disney Animation, an animated feature film from Disney is never the same at the end as it is at the beginning. The production model is such that, in the years it takes to make a movie like Raya and the Last Dragon, anything and everything can change—as long as that change makes it better. During production on Raya, that held true, with one particularly important exception.
“We knew we wanted to tell a story that reflects what we’re seeing in the world,” producer Osnat Shurer told io9. “The biggest issue, which is the sense of division, of divisiveness, of using our differences against each other as opposed to coming together for the greater good of this lovely planet we call home. So we started working on the idea.”
It’s an understatement to say things have been extra tense in the world the past few years—it seems everything gives people a reason to be mad at one another. It’s the same in Raya and the Last Dragon, in which the five tribes of Kumandra —Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine, and Tail—are all at odds over possession of the magical Dragon Gem. But, through the actions of Raya and the titular last dragon Sisu, maybe that has a chance to change.
“When you make a movie like this, it takes so long to make, you can’t really plan when it’s going to come out in terms of everything else happening in the world,” Kelly Marie Tran, the voice of Raya, told io9. “So the fact that it’s coming out now and the message feels so relevant, I think says a lot more about our filmmakers and just knowing that there’s a thing that Disney animated films do really well and it’s sort of tapping into this universal humanness and this humanity that is relatable across generations.”
Tran continued, “It’s a really hard thing to do, but specifically with this movie and what’s happening in the world today...I think that the lessons that Raya learned are lessons that we can all take with us. I know it’s a lesson that I want to take away personally from being able to play her.”
According to Shurer, outside of the general characters of Raya, the dragon, and the idea of a divided world, the message of trust and togetherness was the other main element that exited from the beginning. It’s what became the backbone for everything else that developed.
“Almost everything changed about the film over the five years that I was on it,” Shurer said. “But not some of the key ideas, [such as] we always wanted it to be a movie about coming together. But you get deeper and deeper, as we do the screenings and as we kind of work it and refine it, and we started asking ourselves, ‘What does it take to come together?’ It’s not so simple...What we came up with is trust. That you need to learn to trust each other...So that deepened and many other things shifted as well.”
What things exactly? “The characters from each of the lands, who they are and how they play into the story that developed [changed],” Shurer continued. “There was a moment where they were from different places. Boun [a young boy who helps Raya on the journey, voiced by Izaac Wang] was from Talon and we rearranged some of that as we got deeper into understanding each land and what their psychology and social stance is on the world. So there was a lot of rearranging of that. “
According to Tran, there were also changes in the film’s main relationship. “The relationship between Sisu and Raya was one that changed a bit because we just wanted to make sure that it was right,” Tran said. “And I don’t think we even knew what that meant. But I think once we sort of had a few more sessions and we’re able to really figure out their dynamic, it’s so wonderful now. But that was certainly something that was sort of constantly changing through the sessions.”
Another thing that changed as everyone was making Raya was, well, the real world. The last five years have been very taxing on us all, and while the filmmakers didn’t set out to make a movie that felt so right for right now, when they put on the news, they saw it coming.
“There were certainly moments during the making of the film where we were very aware of how this film, which was meant to be timeless, was unbelievably timely,” director Don Hall said. “I think it emboldened us to continue forward because we felt like we had something to say.”
Raya and the Last Dragon is now in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access.
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