The filmmakers, including Big Hero 6 and Moana alums, chat with EW about Disney Animation Studios' first film to be inspired by Southeast Asia.
Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Raya and the Last Dragon is a movie of many firsts — one of which no one saw coming, not even its creators. The upcoming film will be one of the first Disney Animation features to be developed from remote locations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With production ramping up around March just as the pandemic hit, the Raya team had to quickly reshuffle, working with equipment at home and communicating through Zoom. Despite the challenges, director Don Hall says the studio’s various teams rallied to create what he calls “the most beautiful animated film I've ever seen.” As the filmmaker behind beloved pictures like Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6, and Moana, Hall knows what he’s talking about.

EW can exclusively reveal a first look image from Raya, which happens to be the first fully rendered CG image of the movie. Featured in the picture are Raya and her trusty steed Tuk Tuk, a creature Hall describes as a fuzzy bear meets “an insect version of an armadillo.” As an evil force threatens the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, the two must leave their Heart Lands home and track down the last dragon to help stop the villainous Druun.

EW can also reveal that voicing Raya is Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran, who took over the part from Cassie Steele. Awkwafina, whose inclusion was announced last August, is playing Sisu, a dragon in human form who needs Raya’s help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self.

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Also announced are Hall and Carlos López Estrada as directors, while playwright Qui Nguyen is joining Crazy Rich Asians scribe Adele Lim as co-writer. Paul Briggs and John Ripa serve as co-directors.

“As filmmakers, Don and Carlos bring a combination of animation know-how and emotional storytelling to Raya and the Last Dragon, bringing our fantasy adventure to surprising, original, and dynamic heights,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee says in a statement to EW. “They both saw the potential for this film and had a strong vision for the story, especially for our lead character, played by the wonderfully talented Kelly Marie Tran. And no small feat, directors Don and Carlos, writers Qui and Adele, and the entire crew of 400 Disney Animation artists are making this film together, while separated and working from home.”

Not only will Raya be Disney Animation Studios’ first movie inspired by Southeast Asia, but Tran is the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a film from the company.

López Estrada, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blindspotting, says he never believed the fabled Hollywood casting stories — until he witnessed Tran’s audition. After her first recording session, he and Hall could only look at each other in stunned silence.

“I'm never going to forget it,” López Estrada tells EW. “I think [Don and I] rode in the car together, and we were quiet, looking at each other and nodding our heads just being like, ‘Yep, yep, yep. Kelly's perfect.’”

Put simply, Hall says “she is Raya — just her buoyancy and her positivity, but yet there's a strength as well to Kelly and the character.”

The filmmakers praise Tran’s comedy and ad-lib skills — which she says she honed at various improv schools throughout her career — but it was the level of emotion she brought to the role that really surprised them.

López Estrada says Tran’s session blew them away so much that they changed a scene to match her performance.

“We had this little dramatic moment; it was written as a few lines. And I remember her going, ‘Hey, I have some ideas because this is normally how I would say this or I have some questions. Do you mind if I tried it a little bit differently?’” the director recalls. “She went for it, improvised for a minute, and had us all in tears. We changed the scene and reblocked the animation so that it would follow what Kelly did that day because she just clicked on something that was so much bigger than anything we had imagined.”

Tran, who many audiences know as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, tells EW that Raya, the daughter of a chief, redefines the classic Disney princess. López Estrada also teases we can look forward to chases, fight scenes, and more “high-octane” action from our heroine.

“She is someone who is technically a princess but I think that what's really cool about this project, about this character, specifically is that everyone's trying to flip the narrative on what it means to be a princess,” Tran says. “Raya is totally a warrior. When she was a kid, she was excited to get her sword. And she grows up to be a really badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself.”

When it comes to representation, the filmmakers say they’re putting in the work to accurately celebrate the cultures that influenced the movie, including Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Producer Osnat Shurer, who was also behind Moana, says the studio sent creative teams on research trips to multiple countries in Southeast Asia and worked with a Southeast Asia Story Trust. They also collaborated with a Lao visual anthropologist who looks at every design before it’s finalized, as well as linguists, dancers, and Gamelan musicians from Indonesia.

Besides research, Nguyen says it was important that both his and Lim’s experiences inform the script.

“When you're telling a story and you're just doing it based on research, you end up always having to do it from the high end,” he says. “To have the artists who represent those cultures in there to be able to give the subtleties of what our families are actually like, what our relationships are actually like, has given a lot of nuances to this great adventure.”

Nguyen says it meant a lot for him and Lim to see their cultures represented in specific ways through martial arts or costumes, in addition to references to his Asian American identity. For the most part, movie heroes are white, and when they are Asian, they’re of East Asian descent.

“To be able to have some [heroes] that look like me and my kids, it's gonna matter to a lot of folks,” he says.

Shurer is especially excited to follow up Moana with another movie featuring a kick-ass female protagonist — in fact, Raya has three, including one fans will have to wait to discover.

Raya’s creative team is chugging toward the finish line, Hall says, with the film 50 percent animated at this point. What’s astonishing to the filmmakers isn’t the fact that they’ve been able to accomplish so much in the time of coronavirus and global unrest, it’s how much Raya mirrors the state of the world.

“I don’t know if Disney has ever made a movie that reflects so much what is happening with the world outside,” López Estrada says. “Even though our team has been working on this movie for years and years and years, it's going to feel like an idea that we had maybe a month ago because it talks so much about the themes and the questions and the hope that's happening today and also the lack of hope, and this wrestling with all these really, really important emotions that are happening right now.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is set to premiere March 12, 2021.

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