There's a lot riding on Disney's newest animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, which introduces the studio's first Southeast Asian princess. But how is one princess supposed to represent an entire sprawling region of the globe? Raya and the Last Dragon was inspired by Southeast Asian (SEA) countries, cultures, and traditions, all in the hope of creating the most representative and authentic film possible. And that was no easy feat.
How Raya Represents Southeast Asian Countries
The filmmakers behind Raya and the Last Dragon decided to take a holistic approach when crafting the story, which required the formation of what Disney called the Southeast Asia Story Trust. Led by producer Osnat Shurer, the SEA Story Trust was a team of consultants — anthropologists, linguists, dancers, musicians, etc — from various Southeast Asian countries. "We looked for underlying elements, visually, but also thematically," Shurer told reporters in January. What they found were themes of "community, the commitment to taking care of each other," which drive the plot of the film. They also took a few group research trips, taking the filmmakers behind Raya to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia.
What resulted is the story of Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), an 18-year-old girl who goes on a quest to find the last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), to save her people from a dark evil that transforms humans into stone. Along the way, she must also unite the five lands of the fictional and of Kumandra — Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail — which reflect the many Southeast Asian countries that inspired the film. "One of the things that moved [directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada] the most and made the team really want to ground the inspiration of the film in Southeast Asia was the sense of community that they encountered, the sense of 'we,' the importance of 'we' over 'I,'" Shurer told The Hollywood Reporter.
The Real Inspiration Behind The Last Dragon, Sisu
Perhaps the closest thing to any specific Southeast Asian mythology in Raya is Sisu, the last dragon, who was inspired by the Naga. The Naga appears in many Southeast Asian cultures as semi-divine creatures that can take the form of humans or serpents. The Naga appear in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and were believed to have lived in the Mekong river, which flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. "The Naga are protectors of the water realm. Whenever we go to temples or anything that relates to water, you're going to see symbols of the Naga as a protector," Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, who worked as a consultant on the film, explained to THR.
Raya Isn't Based On A Legend — But It's Inspired By Real Women
The story of Raya and the Last Dragon isn't taken from any specific legend or myth. But, as co-screenwriter Adele Lim, who is Malaysian, told IGN, Raya is symbolic of the Southeast Asian women she grew up with. "There's a history of strong female leaders and warriors in the region, and I personally grew up in a family of really amazing women who inspire and also scare me a little bit every day," Lim said. "So it's important that Raya's actions and attitude embody that same spirit."
The Real Cultural References Throughout Kumandra
As for specific cultural references, Raya and the Last Dragon is full of them, they just don't all come from the same culture. "I often equate it to like Excalibur," co-writer Qui Nguyen said in an interview with /Film. "Where they're pulling it from a lot of European things, not specifically Britain or Ireland or anything like that, it's kind of a melting pot of European stories."
Because Raya features this kind of melting pot of Southeast Asian cultures, Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese descent, said he hopes Southeast Asians of different ethnicities will all be able to recognize some authentic details. "It was like a bunch of Easter eggs culturally for all of us to be able to go, 'Hey, you find your culture in this movie,'" Nguyen explained to NBC News. "You could build an epic story based on cultures that are Eastern, not just Western."
The Kumandran greeting, for example, of raising your hands in a circle shape above your head is "a creative take on the common greetings you'll see in the entire [Southeast Asian] region," Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, who worked as a consultant on the film, told THR. "It's called a nop in Lao and a wai in Thai, but it's the same theme of bringing your hands together."
Then there's all the martial arts seen in Raya, which were especially pulled from Muay Thai, traditional Indonesian wrestling, Pencack silat (seen in Indonesia and Malaysia), and Arnis, a martial arts from the Philippines. "I really wanted to make sure that the martial arts that were in the film were very distinctly Southeast Asian," Nguyen told Polygon.
There is one major aspect of the film, however, that is not specifically Southeast Asian, and that has caused a bit of controversy: the Raya and the Last Dragon cast. Other than Tran, who plays Raya and is of Vietnamese descent, most of the other main cast members — Awkwafina (Sisu), Gemma Chan (Namaari), Daniel Dae Kim (Benja), Benedict Wong (Tong), and Sandra Oh (Virana) — are East Asian. "We actually have quite a few minor supporting roles [with] Southeast Asian specific actors that are perfect for the roles," Raya director Estrada told /Film when asked specifically about this critique. "But I think that we're most excited [about] is that we were able to find, across our cast, we were able to find the perfect people for each role."
In a separate interview with NBC, Nguyen added that this cast, Southeast Asian and East Asian, all had a "deep, deep connection to this movie." The screenwriter also pointed out that having an A-list voice cast would also help raise the film's profile. "I think that it will help get the attention that this movie, this story, and this message deserves."