'Raya' Screenwriters Share Inspiration for Warrior Princesses and Legendary Dragons
Within the first few scenes of Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s clear a grand adventure is about to take place, made all the more mesmerizing thanks to lush and vibrant 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. Together they form the shape of a dragon — a creature beloved and revered by all. Raya, the princess of Heart, explains how Kumandra was once a harmonious land. A dark force known as Druun nearly destroyed it but with the aid of dragons was wiped out. Unfortunately, this brave act caused their extinction and only a gem containing dragon magic remains.
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For Raya screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, the goal was more than depicting an epic quest filled with dragon magic and warrior princesses. The duo wanted to share tales audiences can learn from thanks to inspiring and powerful heroines who come in human and dragon form.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is more of a lone warrior than a classic princess. She would rather swing out a sword than burst out into song. After losing her homeland to the Druun, she’s set on 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 fame, and Nguyen, a Vietnamese American playwright, each share how valuable it was for them to craft a character they would have looked up to in their youth.
"I grew up a huge Stan Lee fan and I always wanted to make superheroes and the chance to make the superhero that actually looks like mine and Adele’s kid was a dream come true," Qui Nguyen tells The Hollywood Reporter.
"I would have given my eyes for a movie like this growing up in Malaysia, and 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, as well as other female characters in the film, to have such strength and perseverance.
"In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors, and leaders of their realms," says Lim. "And also, 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, so we knew those were threads that would really resonate within the film."
As for Raya’s formidable opponent Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) who is a rival princess from Fang, Nguyen explains he’s always been interested in villains that one could "sympathize with" — such as Killmonger from Black Panther. "You understand their circumstances, and you're like, 'Oh, if their philosophy just changed just a little bit, they would be the hero of this film,'" says Nguyen.
The writer notes the Raya and Namaari are similar in many ways.
"The only difference between [Raya and Namaari] is 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. So it really was the journey of two kindred spirits, two people that wanted to be friends, but because of the responsibilities that they had, they thought the only way to be able to succeed was to fight each other. And the journey of this film was really 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 very good at swimming — Sisu. Lighting up as they discussed the legendary water dragon, Lim and Nguyen share how the "last dragon" of the film was "probably one of the hardest characters to crack."
"It was a constant evolution," Lim says. "We always knew that she was going to be kind of quirky and offbeat. But there was a lot that 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 really, underneath that amazing humor, is also this hidden wisdom to her… Sisu is able to reconnect you to what’s joyful."
Sisu’s ability to help Raya and Namaari see the good in humanity and the benefits of community opens up one of the moving takeaways of the film. 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 that [Raya] is facing are very much 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 and all the world’s issues being solved right away.
"The dragon is a metaphor for really being able to inspire that spark in you, and you recognizing that spark in someone else," Lim says. "This act of reaching out, that act 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. And that is the big lesson I hope that kids see."
Raya and the Last Dragon’s premiere comes amid the novel coronavirus 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 a 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 sometimes easy for certain people to feel invisible," Lim says. "My hope with Raya and ideally 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. That this is the world. Once you know something and bring it into your heart, that it seems less foreign, less strange, less of an other."
Nguyen adds that while the focus of Raya was first and foremost to "make an epic story about heroes and trust and unity," for it to possibly "add an ingredient towards healing is an incredible gift that we’re able to give right now."
Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ and in theaters.
by Daniel Fienberg