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The title of Disney's latest offering, Raya and the Last Dragon, sets up certain expectations: You know that the main character will be Raya, the warrior princess voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, and that you'd better meet a dragon sooner or later.
Though the project had been in the works at Disney for six or so years, when Raya's core team -- directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen and producer Osnat Shurer -- came onboard in the past couple years, even those components were still in flux.
"This idea of creating a fantasy world based on the cultures of Southeast Asia that felt unique and cool and really interesting was always baked in," Hall tells ET. As was the idea of breaking that kingdom apart "into five different, warring factions." Thus, they homed in on a theme for their movie -- trust -- and crafted a hero's journey for Raya to unite the lands and save the world.
From there, the team set out populating the different lands with a colorful cast of characters. Which is why when you see Raya, you will indeed meet the titular wisecracking water dragon -- that's Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina -- but you'll also encounter a pre-teen restaurateur, a pet pill bug and a baby con-artist. The latter you can see in action in ET's exclusive sneak peek, above.
Ahead of Raya and the Last Dragon's release this week, ET sat down with the filmmakers to get the backstory on how the movie and its memorable cast of characters came to be.
A Tale That's Not So Old as Time
A fractured world, its people divided based on fear and hostility. A curse that threatens them all. A hopeful leader setting out to bridge the divide and bring her people together. Sound familiar? Team Raya could never have predicted how timely the real-world parallels of the film would be.
Adele Lim: When we were creating the bones of the story years ago, before the pandemic, we could see that people were becoming more divided, more fractured, and a lot of us are parents and that is not the world we want our kids to grow up in.
Don Hall: We wanted to tell the story of a broken world trying to achieve unity, and that's why there's really no big bad in the movie, in terms of an uber villain who is scheming or plotting to do this or that. But it was important for us to put this world under an existential threat. In the film, they're called Druun. They are sort of a mindless, primal force of nature that are attracted to human discord and fragmentation, and they decimate the world of the film. Of course, all that was pre-pandemic, and then when the pandemic hit and we had to work at home, it felt eerily like life imitating art, actually.
Carlos López Estrada: Don and I were watching one of the last cuts of the movie, and we walked out of the theater and I told him, "People are going to think that we wrote this this weekend or last week..."
Osnat Shurer: We didn't think of ourselves as prescient. We were telling a story about divisiveness and how you come together, and the more things developed with the pandemic, the more this movie became timely and timelier. We'd love to release it yesterday, because it's important to have it now.
Carlos López Estrada: I think we definitely understood the weight that this movie could have, and the fact that we were going to contribute to the conversation of what it takes for people with completely different worldviews to come together. I think it is kismet that our movie's coming out right now. I think that we heard Biden's inauguration speech, and we're joking with Qui like, "Did you write that on the side?" So many of the ideas that he was communicating are really part of the DNA of the movie.
Adele Lim: The big message that I think we're also proud of is [that] the act of pulling people together, it's not one magical act that is suddenly going to fix everything. You have to try again and again, even though it doesn't work, even though people might betray you, even though you might lose things, you still have to have hope and you still have to keep reaching out because that's the only way we're going to make it through this mess together.
Meet Raya's Merry Band of Misfits
Raya's ragtag band of allies included Tong the warrior giant (Benedict Wong), Boun the 10-year-old owner of the Shrimporium (Izaac Wang) and Little Noi the con-baby (Thalia Tran), with her loyal hench ongis. The filmmakers initially wondered whether all of these heightened characters would fit into one story together.
Don Hall: Part of it is a wing and a prayer. Like, "Well, hopefully this will work!" But I think when we started to read the pages, we started to have more and more confidence. Like Tong, once we latched on to his specific speech patterns, every time we got to that point in the script or the screening, it was like, "Aw, I love this," you know?
Adele Lim: Little Boun at the Shrimporium, I remember when we were talking about his character, there was a concern of, "He's young, would he be running a restaurant by himself?" And you know, in Southeast Asia, a lot of times in these food hawker stalls, the person coming up to you and hassling you about having exact change is the six-year-old kid who's doing the math in her head and who's got it down and is haranguing you for a tip.
Don Hall: And then the Noi chase, as crazy and weird as it is that there's this little baby who's the boss of a little gang of con artists -- I know it sounds weird -- but it made sense in our head. When that was put together [in storyboards], I think we all were like, "Yep." You could see the entertainment potential just in storyboards. And, yeah, I know we probably broke a little bit of believability in how quickly she moves and stuff like that, but it was worth it for the entertainment value. Every scene Noi's in, I smile. I just love Noi. I could watch a whole movie about Noi.
Carlos López Estrada: When you're writing an animated movie, you're always asked, "Why is it animated? What makes it uniquely animated?" Of course, you look at the ongis and you look at Sisu, and it's obvious. Like, well, that's why it's animated. But then you look at Noi, who's a baby who gets to do, like, a side kick and then starts running around. It's like, "Well, that's also really hard to do." I guess you could with CGI, make a very photorealistic baby doing this. That'd be a little weird, but for it to be in this medium is infinitely endearing and also just so fun to watch.
Creating an Adorable Animal Sidekick
From the studio that brought you Pascal and Maximus, Pau and Heihei, Mushu, Meeko and Sven comes Tuk Tuk, Raya's faithful animal friend and filler of the requisite adorable sidekick role. It begs the question: How do you decide how cute to make a sidekick without being gratuitous? Or can an animal sidekick never be too cute?
Osnat Shurer: The characters are born from story, so there was never a moment where we sat and went, "What's her cute animal sidekick going to be? Because we should have one, because I want the plush." It's more, like, "It's a little bit like a Western, she's sort of a lone warrior and she needs a ride. She needs a steed. She needs something fast that she can ride, and we're in a fantasy world. Here's an idea--" And then, people start to brainstorm. "What if it was like a pill bug and it rolled up and it had a pug kind of cuteness?" So off go the visual development artists and the next day come back with a drawing that was very close to what Tuk Tuk is today. It was even way later that we thought about baby Tuk Tuk.
Adele Lim: In the beginning, Tuk Tuk was in the movie for maybe 10 minutes when Raya was grown up -- you just saw a big Tuk Tuk -- but he was so cool and then he disappeared and everybody was like, "Where is he? Let's bring him back!" Then it became the natural growth from that. With young Raya, suddenly we have wee Tuk Tuk.
Osnat Shurer: We were looking at the boards and thinking of the sound that he would make, and those of us who've been in the region were like, "What if he sounds like the tuk-tuk?" which are the three-wheelers in Thailand. In the region, that that's how you get around. And they have these tiny little engines that go, "Tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk." That's how Tuk Tuk got his name. It wasn't till much later that we realized that he's got a much greater part to play in the story as her one constant companion.
Adele Lim: It was this back and forth and before you know it, there he is.
Osnat Shurer: And he's so cute then that everybody's like, "Can I pop him in the corner of that scene? Could he be trying to eat her soup here?" Because we all got excited that he's so cute. And her interaction with him is so lovely that he earns his place in the movie as her adorable sidekick.
Finding Awkwafina's Inner Dragon
Raya's name may be in the title, but Disney made sure to lock down their Sisu first: Awkwafina was the first cast member to sign on to the project, allowing the role to be written specifically for her and time for animators to infuse her physicality into the character. Of course, then Awkwafina brought her own flavor of improv.
Adele Lim: I worked with her before, so I had her voice in my head. But still, I hadn't written her playing a dragon. Coming from live action, what I learned was that being in the sound booth is one of the few times you can have those moments of spontaneity and real life and spark. And really Awkwafina is all life and spark. In one of our first recording sessions, she went on a tear and we were just like, "Let her rip!" She went on this whole thing about Sisu sniffing around for brisket. We were all just doubled over. We couldn't breathe. And for a second, we were like, "Can we mention brisket? Is that culturally appropriate?" In the end, we couldn't, but even if we can't use the word brisket, being able to write to that and write to her was a lot of fun.
Osnat Shurer: She's also just magical as she trails off. The dialogue would end but you're still hearing her, and it just goes on and on. And it's so good that sometimes we just use all of it. Like, "Oh my god, can we stop and say this in five different ways, like she just did?" She's just so hilarious, we kept it and animated to it. She's very much a part of Sisu dragon.
Carlos López Estrada: I think it's impossible to not be inspired by her. She is such a hypnotizing performer to watch, and I think our animators and the people that were designing the characters like really, really tried to pull as much from her as possible. And because our process is so long, they would be able to see recordings of her doing some scenes and then start incorporating that into the animation. It was really an amazing collaboration.
Qui Nguyen: Like Robin Williams to the Genie or Josh Gad to Olaf, Awkwafina is to Sisu. She gives such a specific spirit, and I find her timelessly endearing in this thing. I think that a lot of people are going to really, really fall in love with her.
Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.