The 59th feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Raya and the Last Dragon, is due to be released this March, and with this particular feature the folks at WDAS are attempting to blend an epic fantasy story with themes, characters, and filmmaking that feel very modern and speak to the contemporary world we live in today. This according to those who made it, as Collider has the chance recently to interview Raya and the Last Dragon directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-writer Qui Nguyen.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the fantasy world of Kumandra, which long ago fractured into five separate lands when dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity from an evil force. When that evil force returns 500 years later, it’s up to a lone warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her ragtag group of companions – including the titular last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) — to save the day.
During our interview, Hall and Estrada talked about taking over the project during production, as they replaced the film’s original filmmakers. They explained what they brought to the film that was missing during that time, and how drilling down into themes of trust made the story all the more relevant to events happening in our world today. Nguyen also talked about how the film consciously blends an epic fantasy world with contemporary filmmaking, story, and dialogue elements to make it that much more relatable, and Hall – a Disney veteran whose credits include Moana and Big Hero 6 — explained the stressful process of finishing the movie remotely over Zoom.
Check out the full interview below with reporting by Drew Taylor. Raya and the Last Dragon will be released on March 5th in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access.
Since all three of you are relatively new to the movie, I was wondering what your take on the material was, why it seemed like a good fit for all of you, and what you brought to this version of Raya?
DON HALL: I think, as you mentioned, it had been being developed for a while and as kind of an outsider, obviously in the Story Trust and following the journey of the film, like everybody in the Story Trust follows all the journeys of our films, but just watching it get developed, I always felt like the world that was being created was so cool, and even the genre, which is a big fantasy action adventure is right up my alley.
Just watching from the sidelines in the Story Trust, I always really admired what was being reached for, and then obviously, in terms of the southeast Asian cultural influences too, it was like, that’s super cool. It’s just unique. It just felt like something very unique and special, and I think what we were able to provide is just a clear thematic throughline we could hang the narrative on, which is trust. It was always about five fractured lands coming together to achieve unity, but by looking at it through the lens of trust, it gave us a polarity in terms of characters having different opinions about that in our core relationship, which is Raya and Sisu.
Raya believing that in a broken world you can’t trust anybody, and I think we do a pretty good job in the film of justifying that perspective. I think the audience is like, yeah, I am right there with her. I wouldn’t trust anybody either if I went through what you went through. Then, partnering her with Sisu, who is of the complete opposite perspective, and has that ancient wisdom of the dragons and believing that the world is broken because you don’t trust each other. Just letting that sort of that push and pull and that polarity of opinion on our thematic really helped, I think, to galvanize the whole story. It’s in every scene and I’m really proud of how — and again, we sort of knew it was topical when we started doing it, but how much more topical it became is insane.
CARLOS LOPEZ ESTRADA: I’ll just say for me, there’s a lot of things about the story that I felt connected to. What was most exciting for me was this challenge of getting characters that come from completely different ideologies, who have contrasting points of view, worldviews, who on the surface should not co-exist as they think, and trying to find a journey that brings them together, that makes them work together, that makes them trust each other, that makes them look eye-to-eye, it just could not feel like a more timely concept for us, for what we were experiencing in our country and the world, and as Don mentioned, as time passed, it just became more and more necessary of a conversation. That was really what was, to me, I think the most exciting.
In terms of what we brought, I think that Don, Qui, and I have such different backgrounds; Qui comes from the stage world with an incredible knowledge of combat and martial arts. I come from the Indie filmmaking, live-action world, and short film world. Don is sort of like a veteran of animation, and I think that finding the common ground and finding how each of our sensibilities could bring a different edge to the movie, but we were also just after the same thing, it’s also very relevant to the themes of the movie, but I think it’s what gives Raya such an interesting feel, a tone, a voice.
You see it, and it’s a fantasy adventure epic, but it really has so many layers that, to me, feel unexpected and feel surprising in a Disney animated movie, and hopefully that comes from the point where all of our sensibilities, as well as our collaborating artists, had to provide to the story.
QUI NGUYEN: For me, it was just a very personal connection to the world that we’re going to tell that never got to see onscreen, being able to have a chance to create it, a hero that I desperately wanted to see my whole entire life, so it was just a very personal thing that I think that that was what I felt like I got to help add into the mixture of making this movie with Don and Carlos.
You bring up the kind of tone, and I thought it was very interesting because it does feel like it’s this ancient fantasy land, but there are various modern references and the vernacular is sort of slangy and so then I, of course, because I overthink things, I’m like, is this an alternate universe? Is this actually modern day? I want to know, what was your thinking there? What were you looking to? It felt sort of Hercules-y in that way, but I would love to know where that came from.
HALL: I think as far as the language part, Qui can speak to it a little bit more, but I think there was a desire to, with a lot of big fantasy epics, sometimes it can get a little stodgy, and maybe overly wrought, and I think we wanted to push on that a little bit and make sure that it was a fun ride. Part of that is just in designing the structure of the movie with action scenes and stuff like that, but another part is just how characters relate to each other, and giving us the license to relate with a little bit more of a modern syntax just, I think, freshened the movie up.
NGUYEN: Yeah. I think just on a language part, I think that often it’s like the characters like these on screen, they often, as Don said, they’re a little stodgy. How a person admires them it’s usually, oh, I would love to be able to fight like them. I would love to be able to carry a sword like them, but often you’re never like, I want to be like them. So it was very important to have characters that kids or everybody could look up and admire and want to emulate. That was part of having a fun language that felt contemporary, that made my kids be able to relate to them instantaneously.
ESTRADA: I think just the DNA of the movie is taking an epic period world and bringing it into a contemporary conversation like, that is the story, that is what themes really speak to. I think that we, as a team, wanted to do that filmically and cinematically on every level. The music is a traditional epic score in every sense, but it has so many different elements of contemporary music, like electronics and beats and things that you normally would never hear. The cinematography, the same. It checks all the boxes. It’s like an epic film, how it should look, but it has really contemporary camera moves and editing patterns, and the sound designs also feels very, very contemporary. I think that it was just, we were trying to do the same thing that the story does on every level of the movie and making sure that it’s relatable and that it excites people for all kinds of different reasons.
The footage we saw was beautiful, and I imagine it had a lot of technical hurdles, but were those things writ large by the fact that you weren’t in the same room as some of these artists? What was that experience like?
HALL: Fortunately, the crew that was assembled to make the film had a lot of veteran leadership, and a lot of them I’d worked with on Big Hero 6 and even Moana, so I think that helped when we all had to go home and work remotely. We just had to find a new way to communicate, because we didn’t have that ease of collaboration that we had when we were back in the buildings. It just wasn’t there. We had to do it via Zoom. I was a little concerned, to be honest with you, in terms of animation, and even lighting. We’re reviewing things on an iPad, so there was always that question, like, what is this going to look like onscreen, and what are we not seeing, and all that. We were definitely trusting. Talk about trust, we’re definitely trusting that it’s going to look okay when we see it on the big screen. Eventually we were able to, just a small group of us, because we had to, go into the theater, socially distant, with masks on, to be able to review the final footage because we just had to.
I have to say, after seeing those first few scenes, that those fears went away. In fact, there were surprises, but they were wonderful surprises. It’s like, oh my God, I never saw that before, and I never saw the texture on Raya’s cloak and, whoa, what’s happening in the background of that shot? It was never distracting, but it was just things that you just couldn’t see on a tiny screen. To me, I guess, it’s a long-winded way of just saying, the people we work with are operating at an incredibly high level, like the highest level I think this studio’s ever seen in terms of animation, in terms of the cinematography, in terms of the affects. Everybody’s just at the very, very top of their game, and I think the film reflects that.
Yeah. You guys brought up Robin Williams a couple of times the other day, and I was just wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on the Genie and his influence on Sisu.
ESTRADA: I don’t know that there was any specific desire to bring … Obviously, it’s an iconic character and I think it shaped all of our lives, so I can’t say that there’s no influence, but there wasn’t a specific desire to say, lets pull from the performance or let’s let Awkwafina be inspired by [Robin]. I think we just wanted to create a character that was larger than life, that was memorable in every possible way, that was kind and also really funny, and I think Awkwafina was really a key collaborator in that.
She really brought Sisu to life in a way that just, we couldn’t have even imagined. She brought her humanity, she brought her humor, she brought her intelligence. Qui also wrote a lot of her character based on Awkwafina’s strengths, so there’s a lot of really complicated, sort of like tongue twister-y things, very quick on its feet. I think it’s just the fact that just like Aladdin was able to create a relationship with the Genie that we really haven’t seen onscreen, I feel like the fact that Raya’s able to establish a really intimate, really familiar relationship with a dragon, and is able to essentially, just throughout the movie, get to know what’s inside of a dragon’s mind.
This divine deity that we’ve mostly only seen from far away and seen with a little bit of a filter in between, all of a sudden they’re handcuffed to each other and really have to get to understand one another. The dragon gets to understand the human point of view, the humans get to understand the history of the dragons and what’s inside of their minds. I think it’ll hopefully give us an equally memorable window into a character that we had never seen before. Hopefully those genie similarities are enough to make Sisu just as a memorable and as iconic of a character.
Reporting by Drew Taylor
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