Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Shannon McGrew had the opportunity to attend the virtual press conference for Disney’s latest animated film, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, moderated by The Real host and former Dancing with the Stars contestant, Jeannie Mai. During the event, writer Adele Lim, producer Osnat Shurer, and actor Awkwafina discussed everything from the representation of Eastern Dragons to the process of breathing life into Sisu.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON takes viewers on an exciting, epic journey to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago 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, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world – it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
Most of the time, when we see dragons depicted in media they are fire-breathing monstrosities that are feared by all. However, in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, the depiction of these creatures and what they mean to the South East Asian culture is much more symbolic and unique. Writer Adele Lim took the time to elaborate on the important symbolism that Sisu and the other dragons represent and how that was utilized for the film:
“It was so exciting to be able to celebrate the Eastern Dragon, and we realized that this was something that most of the world was not familiar with. They are water deities, and they bring such great auspiciousness. It’s very different from the Western Dragon that’s winged and fire breathing, and something you have to destroy and take down.
We also love the symbology in our movie because Raya thinks she’s going to bring forth this water dragon who’s going to snap her fingers and just solve all the problems in the world. Instead, what she finds is this zany, crazy creature voiced by Awkwafina, and she’s vulnerable and needs to be protected. But also, she’s just quirky and sees the good in people. And Raya, who’s such a driven warrior, is thinking, this is nuts. At the heart of our movie is this beautiful friendship between Raya and Sisu, and it’s so rare that we get a major Hollywood movie with a special female friendship at the heart of it.
The last thing I would like to say about the dragon too, that humor, it wasn’t just for the sake of being funny, even though she is. [Sisu] is tremendously amazing and heartwarmingly funny, but there is hidden wisdom underlying all of it, that Raya and hopefully the audience, ultimately comes to see. The humor comes from a place of seeing the best in people, the best in Raya, the best in the people that Raya thought were her enemies, in all these people who you think have let you down and betrayed you. The dragon is the one who can see that spark and that potential. And it inspires everybody to sort of come together and really get past it. So, we got a lot of our inspiration from that auspiciousness and that feeling of the Eastern Dragon. But truly, it was our amazing visual development team, the direction, and of course, Awkwafina bringing her A-game into this that really brought Sisu to life.”
When I think of dragons, I don’t typically think of gender but I enjoyed seeing Sisu portrayed with femme qualities instead of being outright ferocious and unforgiving. Talking on the matter of gender, producer Osnat Shurer discussed the decision process in portraying Sisu as a female dragon:
“We made that decision really early on. Thinking about the dragon that brings water and life and means harmony and auspiciousness and the growth of life, it seemed natural to us to have her a female, and we were also super excited about exploring that friendship [with Raya]. As Adele said, you just don’t get to see enough of that. So, that was a pretty early-on decision, and everybody just embraced it especially when we cast Awkwafina.”
It’s not every day that one gets to voice a magical dragon in a Disney movie, but for Awkwafina she did just that. Voice acting as the legendary dragon, Sisu, Awkwafina talked about the comparison between Sisu and the Genie from Aladdin, as well as finding Sisu’s voice:
“I was obsessed with the Genie. He’s one of my favorite characters from my childhood, and I think therefore there maybe was this subconscious thing. But, I think the real beauty here is that when I was approached to play Sisu and heard what her vibe was, I was given a chance to add my own voice to it and just simultaneously build her up with the directors who were always more than willing to explore and play. And so I think she was really born out of that process. But they’re both definitely big and blue. That’s definitely a thing. But those are really big shoes to fill. The really cool thing about Sisu is that she was part of my voice too.”
RAYA AND THE DRAGON is an epic, emotional tale about the importance of forgiveness, working through misunderstandings, and coming together as a united force against a larger threat. Featuring some of the best animations to come out of Disney, which shows the diverse beauty, culture, and people of Southeast Asia, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a film you surely won’t want to miss.
For more on RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, check out our spoiler-free review here. RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is now in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access.