Awkwafina & Cast Of 'Raya And The Last Dragon' Reveal The Film's Southeast Asian Details

Catch Raya and the Last Dragon in local cinemas from 5 March 2021 onwards!

Cover image via Walt Disney Animation Studios & Walt Disney Animation Studios (YouTube)

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Since the release of the first teaser trailer last October, many have been eagerly anticipating the release of Disney's latest animated feature film, Raya and the Last Dragon

Set in the fictional world of Kumandra, the movie revolves around the titular character, Raya, a lone warrior. In an effort to stop a dark force that has returned after 500 years to threaten her homeland once again, she sets out to find the legendary last dragon, Sisu.

From the food and costumes to the buildings and weapons, netizens were especially excited to see that the upcoming film featured many Southeast Asian elements

Talon’s merchants are the lifeblood of its economy, so the city’s design revolves around their drive to call attention to their wares. Bright colors, lights and patterns fill every inch of the city.

Image via The Walt Disney Company (Southeast Asia)

In fact, in preparation for the movie, the production team actually went on research trips to various Southeast Asian countries in order to take inspiration from all the beautiful and diverse cultures.

Raya and the Last Dragon also boasts an all-Asian voice cast, including big names such as Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, and Daniel Dae Kim.

Plus, one of the screenwriters, Adele Lim, is a fellow Malaysian! You may remember her as the co-screenwriter for the Crazy Rich Asians movie.

Last month, the voice cast, directors, producers, and writers of the movie got together over Zoom for a virtual press con, during which they shared all kinds of fun tidbits

From top left to bottom right: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Osnat Shurer, Adele Lim, and Qui Nguyen

Image via Ethan Miller & Casi Moss

Participating in the virtual press con were the following:
- Kelly Marie Tran (voice of Raya)
- Awkwafina (voice of Sisu)
- Daniel Dae Kim (voice of Benja)
- Thalia Tran (voice of Little Noi)
- Izaac Wang (voice of Boun)
- Don Hall (Director)
- Carlos Lopez Estrada (Director)
- Osnat Shurer (Producer)
- Adele Lim (Writer)
- Qui Nguyen (Writer)

Here are some highlights from the virtual Asia-Pacific press con for Raya and the Last Dragon:

1. The voice cast shared how it feels to be part of the first animated feature film from Walt Disney Animation Studios that is inspired by the people and the culture of Southeast Asia, with many expressing their excitement

"I think it's so special," said Awkwafina, who voices the magical, mythical self-deprecating dragon, Sisu.

"When I was first pitched the idea of playing Sisu, and knowing that Kelly Marie Tran was in talks to be the first Southeast Asian princess, I just thought that was really awesome."

She went on to say, "Knowing that Adele Lim, the writer of Crazy Rich Asians, was also part of the team, I knew that it was going to be something special."

Having played Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina was one of the breakout stars of the movie.

Raya and Sisu team up to stop an evil force threatening Kumandra.

Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios

Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the badass warrior princess Raya herself, shared, "I think I grew up with the sort of narrow perception of what a hero looks like or what a hero spoke like, and to be part of something that's sort of changing that feels really powerful."

The titular Raya, a warrior who leaves her homeland to track down the last dragon.

Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios

The voice of Chief Benja a.k.a Raya's father, Daniel Dae Kim, talked about the importance of the Disney movie for children in particular.

He said, "The universe that Disney creates is one that many of them see as a totality of the world while they're children, you know? And like when you think of Disney movies, it helped define our childhood.

"And so now, to know that Southeast Asia and Asians in general will be a part of those kids' experience. It does huge things for issues of representation and role modeling, and the future, it now becomes inclusive of that group. And I think that's so important."

The idealistic and bold visionary, Chief Benja, with young Raya.

Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios

Thalia Tran, one of the younger cast members who voices Little Noi, added that it's so special to have "characters who look like us, who we can look up to."

"We can see our faces and hear our voices reflected on the screens, and see our stories and know that they matter," she said.

The mischievous Little Noi. Don't let her age and cuteness fool you, she's a force to be reckoned with.

Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios

2. Kelly Marie Tran talked about how Raya is different from the other Disney princesses, and whether there are any similarities between herself and the character

"Yeah, I also have a very large sword and can fight people and win all the time. No, Raya is so important to me.

"I think that, you know, there's so many parts to something like this. For me, that collaboration sort of resulted in Raya being someone who is allowed to experience the wealth of human experience.

She is a woman who's funny and witty. And sometimes she gets angry and sometimes she's sad and she's vulnerable, and she is sometimes very well aware of how scary things can be in the world, but she still does the courageous thing.

"Man, I just made her sound really cool and now you're asking me if I relate to her. I would like to think I'm all those things. But I definitely think that playing her has changed me in a good way. You know, it makes me want to be all of those things."

3. With the cast doing most of the voice work for the movie from home, Daniel Dae Kim loved being able to just work in a t-shirt and shorts at home (hahaha, so relatable :P)

However, he added that working from home wasn't without it's missteps, since the responsibility was on the cast to "be our own tech team at home". They had to make sure that all their audio and video settings were correct, as well as set up housing to prevent echoing.

"One of the first sessions I ever did from home, it was going really well. I was like, you know, this recording at home stuff is kind of fun. 30 minutes later, I realized that everything I just recorded had been lost and I didn't set things properly," Daniel shared with a laugh.

Familiar Southeast Asian ingredients like shrimp paste, lemongrass, and lime leaves are used in the special bowl of Tom Yum Soup that Chief Benja prepares for young Raya.

Image via Walt Disney Animation Studios

Director Carlos Lopez Estrada chimed in to share fellow director Don Hall's reaction upon hearing that Daniel's recording was gone.

"Don, you're one of the most optimistic people I've met, but that day when we heard that we lost Daniel, I remember your face. And I've never seen you so hopeless, but it was the best recording session, Daniel. It was the most important Benja scenes and Daniel just poured his heart into these lines.

"And the moment that we ended the call, we got a text just saying like, 'Um, I think we didn't record anything', but Daniel came back, saved the day. Did it again, did it better. And you'll hear in the movie."

4. According to the filmmakers, the research trips they went on throughout Southeast Asia were a very profound experience that became a great inspiration for the movie

Dragons are central to the design of Heart, taking inspiration from Southeast Asia, where sacred beings are venerated through physical representations and imagery. On the Heart Bridge, dragon statues made of karst limestone connect the Heart Lands to the rest of Kumandra.

Image via The Walt Disney Company (Southeast Asia)

"We were lucky enough to go to quite a few places and then to keep those relationships going as we went into the film. Part of what struck us so much, and part of why we wanted to ground the film in Southeast Asia was the incredible diversity that we encountered.

And yet there's this working together, this ability to set aside the differences within each country and within the whole region and work together for the greater good. This was the theme of our film. So it was this perfect marriage," said producer Osnat Shurer.

Verticality and symmetry are very important to Fang’s design, as seen in this painting of Fang Palace, where tall banners, columns and sculptures lead the eye upward toward extremely high ceilings. These effects combine to give the feeling of reverence for royalty that is central to Fang’s personality, setting it apart from the other lands of Kumandra.

Image via The Walt Disney Company (Southeast Asia)

Director Carlos Lopez Estrada added that the trips really impacted the entire creative team deeply and transformed all the artists who got to go.

"There was so many instances throughout the making of the movie where people would say, 'Uh, I remember that sunset that we had looking over the Mekong, I want to try to recreate those colors'.

"Or even in the sound design and John Ripa, our co-director, who was in the trip, said 'I remember the cicadas, just the beautiful sound the cicadas made when we were outside of this temple. Uh, we should make sure that we put it in the opening of the movie.' So, the very first sound that you hear in the film is these like a symphony of cicadas."

Catch Raya and the Last Dragon in local cinemas from 5 March 2021 onwards!

Pssst, we got to watch it early and absolutely loved it! It's colourful and vibrant, and showcases Southeast Asian culture beautifully. Look out for the Malaysian inspirations, okay? ;)

That aside, the movie is definitely an enjoyable watch. We totally got all emotional and cried shhh don't tell anyone T__T

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