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Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is Finally Here

After pushing its original November 25, 2020 release date because of the COVID-19 pandemic as it quickly pivoted hundreds of artists to produce the bulk of the film from home, the studio delivers a beautiful and emotionally fulfilling epic adventure; the film releases simultaneously in theatres and on Disney+ this Friday, March 5.

After a directorial change, a release schedule change, and an already complex production completely upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, Walt Disney Studios’ beautifully designed and emotionally satisfying epic animated adventure, Raya and the Last Dragon, finally arrives with a simultaneous release in theatres and on Disney+ (with Premier Access) this Friday, March 5. We’ve been waiting on this film for quite some time; we’re happy to say the time spent tapping our watches was not in vain.

Inspired by the cultures and people of Southeast Asia, the impeccably styled CG animated film is helmed by Don Hall, the Oscar-winning director of Big Hero 6, and Carlos López Estrada, whose feature film directorial debut was the critically acclaimed Blindspotting; the pair took over as directors early last year as the jarring realities of the pandemic began to register. Paul Briggs, the veteran artist known for his work as head of story on Frozen and Big Hero 6, and fellow longtime animator/story artist John Ripa, who worked on both Moana and Zootopia, are co-directors. Osnat Shurer, nominated for an Oscar for Moana, and Frozen Oscar winner Peter Del Vecho, are the producers. Award-winning playwright and writer Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, who penned Crazy Rich Asians, wrote the screenplay.

Raya and the Last Dragon takes audiences on an exciting journey to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons long ago lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. 500 years later, the same evil has returned, and it is up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

However, along her journey, she will learn that it will take more than a dragon to save the world - it is going to take trust and teamwork as well. Raya travels through the five lands of Kumandra that form the shape of a dragon: Heart, Raya’s home, a prosperous land filled with peace and magic; Fang, a powerful, thriving land surrounded by water; Spine, an insular and remote land whose people distrust outsiders; Talon, the crossroads of the five lands and a bustling marketplace; and Tail, a far-flung, desert land that is becoming more isolated as water recedes.

Kelly Marie Tran stars as the intrepid warrior Raya; Awkwafina as the legendary dragon, Sisu; Gemma Chan as Raya’s nemesis, Namaari; Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s visionary father, Benja; Sandra Oh as Namaari’s powerful mother, Virana; Benedict Wong as Tong, a formidable giant; Izaac Wang as Boun, a 10-year-old entrepreneur; Thalia Tran as the mischievous toddler Little Noi; Alan Tudyk as Tuk, Raya’s best friend and trusty steed; Lucille Soong as Dang Hu, the leader of the land of Talon; Patti Harrison as the chief of the Tail land; and Ross Butler as chief of the Spine land.

Part marathon, part sprint, sophisticated animated feature films like Raya are always complex and difficult undertakings; when folks at the studio shrug their shoulders in exhaustion and say, “Well… you have to trust the process,” they mean it literally. The diligent workforce of 800 or more incredibly skilled artists working in various teams for many years one day gets their creative baby yanked from them and put before audiences. It’s a tremendously laborious and difficult style of filmmaking. And, unlike any other film in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ history, Raya was produced during a devastating pandemic.

Painstakingly finished safely and remotely during the height of COVID-19, Raya is the studio’s 59th film… and first one made from home. “It was last March, and we were just really swinging into full-on production, where you’ve created most of your assets, and things are really building up,” says Shurer. “And it was one of those amazing moments where, if you’d asked us two weeks earlier, we’d have said, ‘No, we can’t work from home, we all have to be in the same room… you can’t have story discussions if you’re not in the same room.’ Overnight, it’s like, we're in one building and then suddenly, we're not. I've never seen anything quite like it. This team pivoted in literally two weeks; we barely missed a beat. Though, I couldn’t feed my people. Ask any producer… it’s what they taught me in film school. One of the key things you’ve got to do is feed your crew.”

“We thought we’d be going home for six weeks… and we’re still at home,” she adds.

Disney, however, was a bit ahead of the curve as far as plans, procedures, and pipelines for remote production. With 30% of the team’s artists already able to work from home, the transition, though difficult, didn’t start from scratch. Far from it. Technical supervisor Kelsey Hurley shares, “The transition went really well.  We were lucky that we already had a work from home policy in place before this all happened. The studio has put a lot of thought into having a good work-life balance and being able to log in from home has been a big part of this, especially when a movie gets busy towards the end. If you want to check your renders after dinner and be home with your family, you were given the opportunity to do that. Now, obviously, it was at a much smaller scale. It wasn’t planned that you’ve have 600-800 people logging on all at the same time.”

“Reviews were challenging,” she continues. “How do you review things, not being in the same room, as well as deal with aspects of audio and visual lag? ‘Is that something that's actually in the animation or is that my internet?’ So, we had to come up with some solutions on how we would properly review everything and make sure that our final frames were looking good.”

“Socially it changes a lot of things,” Shurer notes. “You know, at Disney, and for me, when I was a Pixar, we like being in the room together. We like taking the time with the story. We want to play with it, kick it around, see people’s body language, let them fall down in the room. All that kind of stuff we had to relearn using little boxes on the screen.”

“Part of what worked well was that you can only do this thing for so long in a given day,” she continues. “So, you learn how to create a whole different work life balance, which I'm hoping we can carry forward. You have to get off Zoom after a while, which means we do a lot more delegating. The directors and me. Everyone is doing a lot more delegating, which means artists feel very, very empowered and trusted.”

Though the film is a fantasy adventure, every aspect is grounded in respect for the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia that informed the film. As the artists and filmmakers designed the look of the various lands, they were inspired by fabrics, colors, and decor suggestive of those found in the region to build a sense of reality and relatable authenticity to the film, with particular attention on tradition and customs. Two groups of filmmakers made research trips throughout Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore to better experience and understand the cultures; though several of the filmmakers could trace their own roots to the different countries in the region, the research trips became a profound experience for those within the team who had never visited Southeast Asia in such an immersive way.

The filmmakers also consulted with what they called the Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust: a group of anthropologists, architects, dancers, linguists, and musicians that provided invaluable guidance and assistance throughout the entire production. As Lim explains, “We're essentially writing and rewriting the movie countless times just to get to that more perfect union of ideas and visual development. As the newbie in terms of feature animation, what really stuck out for me, particularly as a female writer of color who grew up in Southeast Asia, is the time, the care, and the respect that the Disney team took to get the research right. It wasn't about speed. It was about, are we doing justice to the inspiration we are drawing from Southeast Asia? Are we being respectful? How do we get an authentic read of the cultures we’re using as inspiration for this world we're building? It's not just about research, it's not just about looking things up on Google. It involves reflection on our experiences growing up in Southeast Asia… what it’s like growing up with Southeast Asian parents. So, this was all very special and really contributes to the authentic feel and richness of the movie.”

“We're presenting this fantasy world that the audience isn’t really familiar with,” Lim continues. “It's something we lean into, but the core of the story, the core of Raya’s journey, is something that’s universal, that need for trust, that feeling of instinctively understanding it’s going to take all of us coming together to get to the place we want to go to. I take the most pride in our story in that even though the lands are fictional, and the characters are fictional, the journey Raya goes on feels very real, the troubles she encounters feel very real.”

Each of the five lands in Kumandra has its own physical characteristics, environments, and topography; each clan its own ethos, with people dressed and living quite differently. As the artists and filmmakers designed the look of the various lands, they were inspired by fabrics, colors, décor, even foods of the region to build a sense of reality and relatable authenticity to the film, with particular attention to tradition and customs.

“We have a world made up of five different lands,” Shurer describes. “That’s like designing five movies. They have five different natural environments, materials they build with, different colors the locals wear, different shape languages that are meaningful to them. For example, in the land of Heart, they are connected to the dragon and the dragon is connected to water, so buildings, rooms, etc. look more like a drop—they’re round. Whereas in the land of Fang, they’re all about power, so the structures are powerful and over-scale.  Every one of these things have been thought through by our incredible visual development and production design team members and then carried through into the film.” 

“What I love about the story is it exists on an epic scale in terms of just moving through these five lands, and these different groups, with the fantasy elements, but there’s also an intimate feel in terms of character development,” Hall notes.  

Estrada adds, “We’re making a movie that is inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, and we want to make sure that when people from the region see this, although Kumandra is made-up place, they can feel the love and respect the team had for the incredible real places that inspired us. We worked hard to make sure that this world we created feels dynamic, that the inspirations affecting the story really come through and that nothing is lost. We want to pay tribute to these cultures that inspired the story and the world of Kumandra.”

Tasked with translating the filmmakers’ vision for the five lands and bringing them all to life, Paul Felix and fellow production designer Helen Chen outdid themselves. Though excited by the challenge of creating the look of each land, Chen notes there were two constant elements that unified the lands and gave the designers a defined viewpoint. “For us, the main unifying elements of Kumandra have always been the water and the dragon,” she says. “In our movie, we have the river that links everybody together and throughout the movie, we see them traveling along this river to visit each of the different lands. So, there’s a water element that really ties it together physically. Wherever we could, we wanted to keep the water elements in the sets as much as possible.  Then beyond that, there is a universal reverence for the dragon. There are motifs in the film that are dragon inspired but interpreted in each land’s particular way.”

Through the diligent work of teams led by the talented trio of Rob Dressel, director of cinematography, Adolph Lusinsky, director of cinematography lighting, and visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt, the smallest details of the film’s designs, textures, colors, and tone were realized, with a richness and depth that draws the viewer into the story in relatable ways.

According to Estrada, “The look of this movie is so extraordinary and cinematic. The production teams were able to pull off a wholly unique look to the environments, cinematography, and lighting - creating a bold and very different look for a Disney animated movie.” He concludes, “One of the things I'm proudest of, that we were able to do as a team with Raya, is that it’s a fantasy epic set in a period land with all these iconic elements that we pulled inspiration from. But I think we were also able to give it our own edge and voice. Qui, Don, I, and the rest of the team really wanted this to feel fresh, to feel respected, and to feel surprising. And there's themes in the story, in the filmmaking, the editing patterns, the style, the cinematography, that I think feel really different from what you'd expect of this kind of movie. So hopefully, we were able to accomplish both: to really pay homage to our inspirations, conceptually and culturally, and to stylistically bring a movie into the Disney Canon that feels new and exciting.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.