STACK caught up with stars Awkwafina, Kelly Marie Tran and co-director Don Hall to discuss Disney’s new animated adventure, Raya and the Last Dragon.
We’ve had How To Train Your Dragon, Dragonslayer, Dragonheart and Dragon Rider among the countless other fire-breathing beasties featured in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and folklore films dating back almost a century. And then of course there’s Daenerys Targaryen and her three dragon children in Game of Thrones.
Yet, despite this crowded dragonverse, Disney is gambling that nobody has seen the like of Sisu, the pastel-hued, shape-shifting dragon sidekick in their new animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon. And certainly, no other dragon has as much sass as Sisu, voiced by the inimitable Awkwafina.
When STACK asks Raya co-director Don Hall if he’s concerned about a dragon overload, he is nonchalant. As with all Disney’s animated films, the creative team did extensive homework, traveling to Singapore, Thailand, Lao, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, inspired by Southeast Asian culture and mythology.
“Based on our research, we felt like we were going to be putting a very unique dragon on screen,” says Hall, explaining how this particular dragon is based on the Naga, featuring in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as a member of a class of mythical semi-divine beings, half human and half cobra.
“This was a kind of dragon I had never experienced before. It felt very new and fresh to us, specifically with the connection that the Nagas have to water, which is a huge visual element and almost a spiritual theme in the film,” he says.
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where long ago humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity.
Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and unite its divided people.
“Raya is such an incredible character,” says Tran. “When we first meet her as a young girl, she experiences something traumatic that shapes the way she sees the world. When we meet Raya later when she’s older, she is seeing the world through this lens of not being able to trust anyone. She’s had to find a way to survive in a world that has become pretty dark, and it’s cool to see her come from that and try to learn how to trust again.”
Sisu, short for Sisudatu, is the last dragon of Kumandra. Legends say she’s a divine water being of unspeakable beauty and unstoppable magic, but what Raya finds instead is a funny, self-deprecating dragon who sees herself as the perennial C-student. Now she must learn to become the dragon of legend if she is to save the world with Raya.
“I definitely connect with Sisu,” Awkwafina tells us. “She has optimism, hope and even finds a belief in herself – much to her own surprise. I love her because she isn’t perfect, and I think that’s a strong message to send to everyone: We don’t have to be perfect.”
Recording her lines while in Australia last year shooting Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Awkwafina proved adept at multitasking.
“The first time we recorded her, she was quarantined in a hotel room in Australia before going on to shoot six days a week, yet she always managed to bring it, putting her whole self into Sisu,” says producer Osnat Shurer. “She is incredibly professional, and all that comedy comes from great discipline and serious dedication.”
Co-writer Adele Lim already knew they’d struck gold with Awkwafina, having previously worked together on Crazy Rich Asians.
“Knowing how she can improvise, we just let her rip and run free and wild and she came up with so many great expressions. When you’re creating a fictional Naga creature with a weird sense of humour, you don’t always know what’s going to work, so just having her there and really bringing it to life was a big deal. Awkwafina is Asian-American but her appeal is global, and that part of Awkwafina is also a big part of Sisu; that she can straddle various cultures and expectations and still be incredibly witty. I hope the audience will find a real connection with her.
• Raya and the Last Dragon is in cinemas on March 4, 2021