A lot can change for an animation film at any stage in production. Last year, during the D23 Expo, Disney announced that Raya and The Last Dragon would be hitting theaters this fall. Back then, Cassie Steele would voice Raya, with Awkafina playing Sisu, Sisu, a dragon in human form who needs Raya’s help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self. The film would be directed by Don Hall, who would be using a script written by Crazy Rich Asians scribe Adele Lim.
That was last year, and we all know how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected various projects. Most have either been postponed to a later release or halted altogether. But the most significant change for Raya and the Last Dragon is that Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran is taking over the lead voice role from Cassie Steele. The film makes Tran the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a film from the company.
But before we get into that, Disney has released the first fully-rendered CG image of Raya and The Last Dragon, which appears exclusively on Entertainment Weekly. And it is stunning. The image sees the titular Raya alongside her animal companion Tuk Tuk, a creature Hall describes as a fuzzy bear that 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.
There are also some additions to the creative teams. Carlos López Estrada, of the critically acclaimed Blindspotting will director alongside Hall. Hall’s credits include Winnie The Pooh and Big Hero Six. Vietnamese playwright Qui Nguyen is joining Lim as a co-writer.
Both Lopez Estrada and Hall knew that Tran was the right person for the role after her audition. According to the report, the two looked at each other in stunned silence after her first recording session. “She is Raya — just her buoyancy and her positivity, but yet there’s a strength as well to Kelly and the character,” Hall said.
It was such an impressive session that “they changed a scene to match her performance.”
Another thing that Disney fans will look forward to is how Raya, the chief’s daughter, will redefine the classic Disney princess. Lopez Estrada teased that there will be 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 real badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself.”
Seeing a character who looks like you or cultural touchstones in a film a lot to those who feel underrepresented on screen. So Disney took the same approach to Moana when it came to the research process. Disney sent creative teams to do research in multiple countries in Southeast Asia. They include Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. “They also collaborated with a visual anthropologist who looks at every design before it’s finalized, as well as linguists, dancers, and Gamelan musicians from Indonesia.”
Story is heavily emphasized at Disney, and while research is essential, Nguyen and Lim also added their own experiences to 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.”
The current pandemic comprised the film’s production, forcing many of its staff to work remotely. However, the team persisted and found innovative ways to work through those problems via zoom. According to Hall, they Raya and The Last Dragon is 50% animated at this point. Coincidentally, he say it is surprising how much Raya mirrors the state of the world.
You can read EW‘s full coverage of Raya and The Last Dragon, which includes quotes from producer Osnat Shurer, who also was a producer on Moana, and Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee.
Raya and The Last Dragon opens in theaters on March 21, 2021.