Raya and the Last Dragon: Disney’s New Inspirational Tale

Inspirational Tale about Warrior Princesses and Legendary Dragons

Raya and the Last Dragon

Courtesy of Walt Disney
As Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen began writing Raya and the Last Dragon, their goal was to create a hero that could honor their culture and also deliver a more universal message.
Indeed, the adventure is made all the more thrilling due to the lush tributes to Southeast Asia.The film begins in the fictional land of Kumandra, which is divided into five regions known as Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.  Jointly, they form the shape of a dragon, a revered creature.Raya, the princess of Heart, explains that a dark force, Druun, nearly destroyed it but with the aid of dragons was wiped out. But this brave act caused their extinction and only a gem containing dragon magic remains.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in 'Raya and the Last Dragon' (2021).
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ (2021).   |   Disney/Everett Collection
Raya (voiced byKelly Marie Tran) is more of a lone warrior–she is good with swords–than a singing princess.  After losing her homeland to the Druun, she sets out to finding the sole surviving dragon (Awkwafina’s Sisu) in order to bring harmony back to Kumandra.

Lim, a Malaysian-born American screenwriter of Crazy Rich Asians, and Nguyen, a Vietnamese American playwright, represent new voices.

“I grew up a Stan Lee fan and I always wanted to make superheroes that actually look like mine, and Adele’s kid was a dream come true,” Qui Nguyen says.

“It’s a movie my daughter, who’s like a little ninja warrior herself, would love to see,” Lim adds.

Lim also notes how culturally relevant it would be for Raya to have such strength and perseverance.

“In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors,” says Lim. “the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water. In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. The Nagas and strong females are present within a lot of the cultures in Southeast Asia.”

Raya and her nemesis, Namaari, face off amid the snowy mountains of Spine.
Courtesy of Disney
Raya’s opponent Namaari (Gemma Chan) is a rival princess from Fang. Nguyen says he’s always been interested in “sympathetic” villains, such as Killmonger from Black Panther. “You understand their circumstances, and if their philosophy just changed just a little bit, they would be the hero of this film,'” says Nguyen.

Raya and Namaari are similar in many ways. “They had the same prejudices, they had the same responsibilities to take care of their countries,” Nguyen says. “Raya has Benja, her dad, and also meets Sisu. If Namaari would have found Sisu first, this movie could have been the exact opposite. Namaari could have been trying to simplify the kingdoms and having to turn Raya around.  It really was the journey of two kindred spirits that wanted to be friends, but because of their responsibilities, they thought the only way to be able to succeed was to fight each other.

The journey of this film was about them finding out that they could do more good together than apart.”

What helps Raya and Namaari each let go of their prejudices is a quirky dragon who is good at swimming — Sisu.

“It was a constant evolution,” Lim says. “We knew that she was going to be quirky and offbeat. But there was a lot the character has to do, too, because inspired by Southeast Asia, the Nagas and dragons are this deity. They are auspicious and they bring bounty and water and life to the land. So underneath that humor, there’s hidden wisdom to her.”

Raya seeks the help of the legendary dragon, Sisu.
Courtesy of Disney

Sisu’s ability to help Raya and Namaari see the good in humanity. Kumandra is fractured and feuding because people no longer trust one another and each region looks down upon the others for their differences.

“Even though Kumandra is this fantasy land, the issues Raya is facing are the issues we are facing right now. Any kid can look around the world and tell we are divided,” Lim says.

It was important to both Lim and Nguyen to ensure Raya’s journey wasn’t fixed as easily as a magical dragon appearing, with all the world’s issues solved right away.

“The dragon is a metaphor for being able to inspire that spark in you, and you recognizing that spark in someone else,” Lim says. “This act of reaching out, of trust, it is not a simple one-time act. You have to keep doing it, even though you might be betrayed by somebody. Even though you might lose everything that is special and dear to you. You have to keep getting up and reaching out, because that is the only way we are going to get through this crazy world together. That is the big lesson I hope that kids see.”

Raya and the Last Dragon’s premiere comes amid the pandemic’s one-year anniversary and a rise in hate crimes against the Asian community. With how divisive the world feels right now, Lim and Nguyen agree the film can offer much-needed call for unity while also gifting further visibility for the Southeast Asian community.

“If you don’t see your story on screen, it’s easy for certain people to feel invisible,” Lim says. “My hope with Raya and more movies like this is that the world sees us for the rich, textured, varied people that we are. That it is not a stretch and it shouldn’t be an anomaly. Once you know something and bring it into your heart, it seems less foreign, less strange, less of an other.”

The focus of Raya was to make an epic story about heroes and trust and unity, and to add an ingredient towards healing is an incredible gift we’re able to give right now.”