Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a film that’s so different from most other movies of its kind, it didn’t even have to be fully formed for writers and actors to jump at the chance to be part of it.
“It was one of those things where I heard ‘Strong female protagonist,’ ‘Asian inspired dragon’ and I was like, ‘I’m your chick for this. Like a thousand percent,’” co-writer Adele Lim, best known for adapting Crazy Rich Asians, told io9. Lim was brought onto the Disney animated film a few years into development when only broad strokes were in place for what would become Raya and the Last Dragon, but that didn’t matter. She wanted in, as did many others.
Set for release—in theaters and for Disney+ Premier Access—on March 5, Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a fictional, Southeast Asian-inspired world where humans and dragons used to live in harmony. An ancient evil emerged, killing most of the dragons until the last one left, Sisu, used a special gem to defeat them. In the 500 years since the Dragon Gem has divided the land with tribes fighting over its ownership. Things only get worse when the ancient evil returns and a young girl named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is tasked with protecting the gem and finding the long-missing Sisu.
The story as it is in the final film (there’s way more to it than even that) is pretty complex, but it didn’t start that way. Soon after finishing work on 2016's Moana, producer Osnat Shurer moved over to work on Raya. At the time, the story was still very much being crafted but a few things were going to be in it for certain.
“The strong warrior female character and these five lands around the Dragon River that were divided and need to come together,” Shurer explained to io9. They’d also settled on the film’s dragon looking more like a traditional Asian dragon as opposed to something like a Game of Thrones design. But beyond that, there wasn’t a lot fully formed about the story.
That didn’t matter to people like Lim and star Kelly Marie Tran, who jumped at being part of something that would focus on an Asian setting and people and reach the mainstream.
“[I wanted to do it because of] the fact that it was about a part of the world that my family’s from and where I’m from. A part of the world that doesn’t really get to be honored often,” Tran, who voices Raya, told io9. “Then Raya herself as a character and recognizing we’re really trying to broaden the narrative when it comes to what do people think when they think of the word ‘hero’ or what they think of the word ‘princess?’ I don’t think we’ve seen anyone with those two labels that look and speak and act like Raya does. And that’s really important to me, that we are continuing to create new types of heroes and princesses. It’s really cool to be part of that.”
Lim echoed Tran’s sentiments. Before becoming a Hollywood writer, she grew up in Southeast Asia and enjoyed something she, at the time, took for granted.
“Growing up for me, I was influenced by a lot of Hong Kong kung fu movies where the women, even if they were the cute girl or the awful mother in law, they could still whip out a sword and just lay waste to all the bad guys,” she said. “When you grew up with strong female action figures like that, you think it’s commonplace. And it wasn’t until I got to America where I realized, ‘Oh, not all young girls have that hero growing up.’ I have a daughter who’s obsessed with valkyries and ninjas and so I really wanted to give her, and give young girls like her, this amazing new Disney heroine who kicks all kinds of butt.”
And so they did just that. We’ll have more on Raya next week.
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