When screenwriter Qui Nguyen was a little kid, he always wanted to play Spiderman. “I wanted to be someone who was equally as sharp with my wit as I was with my fist,” Nguyen said during a recent video interview. “When you think of Asian heroes, they are often very quiet and stoic. They’re all badasses, but they all end up being the quiet ninja Samurai.”
With a trio of girls as the three main characters, the charming animated movie drew from many Southeast Asian countries to create an entertaining and heartfelt story as specific as it was universal. Through the lens of a bright and quippy comedy, the film touches on themes of environmentalism, tribalism, resource-sharing, and working across differences.
It’s a testament to Lim and Nguyen, under the direction from Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, and Paul Briggs, that they were able to wrangle such a large team into such an authentic and engaging story that resonates across cultures and ages. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the result of years of lobbying for underrepresented groups to have more than just a voice at the table of mainstream animation; here, they lead the charge. It’s easy to fall in love with the movie’s characters and its culture, and deserves to be a central player in the awards conversation — from the obvious Best Animated Feature field to its infectious script.
Though Lim and Nguyen oversaw every frame, the collaborative process tapped Asian artists at every level, drawing on in-house talent Disney had been cultivating for years. The magical result, Lim says, is what happens when a story is told “from the inside out.”
“Sometimes, when Western storytelling is looking at Asian characters, they tend to focus on, ‘Well, these are the three things we know about Asian culture.’ In terms of the stoicism, the inner peace, and the zen-ness. Or filial piety, a dedication to honor, duty, and family,” Lim said. “But we are more than just those maxims. Telling a story that was based on joy, and being silly, and fart beetles, and giving our kids something to latch onto and to celebrate felt very new.”
Often when minority characters are written by white writers, Nguyen said, their fear of offending others can actually limit the humanity of the characters themselves.
“When you’re coming from the outside in, when you’re only doing it by research, the characters end up being flat because they tried to honor it too much,” said Nguyen. “We were creating characters that we wanted to see. And part of that is you have to have flaws to overcome, to grow from, to evolve.”
After nearly 20 years writing for film and television, Lim has plenty of experience writing for characters who don’t look like her.
“When I was starting out, all the lead characters I wrote for were white men,” she said. “They were white male aliens, or detectives, or doctors. And I had to shove all my collective experience, and where I grew up, and the people I grew up with through this white guy prism in order to tell those stories.”
It goes without saying that writing for “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Raya” was totally different from a storytelling perspective, but she was also surprised by how different things felt behind the scenes.
“I was frequently the only person of color, and sometimes the only woman, or one of two women out of staff of 14 or 15 people,” she recalled. “My very first day at Disney, when I went into the office, I was surrounded by a bunch of female story artists who just happened to be Asian, and I’d never been in an elevator with three or four other Asian women in any other studio.”
Both writers were very involved in all phases of the film, from art direction to fight choreography. But the storyboard artists, many of whom were of Southeast Asian descent, also had a say in every detail.
“They put in all these little details from their own childhoods, their own dynamics with their grandparents. Fruits that they had growing up, dishes, food,” said Lim. “Hopefully, when people watch the movie, they sense the attachment, the love, and the authenticity. Even though it’s a totally fantastical movie, the references come from a true place, and a place of great affection for us.”
While the fictional land of Kumandra is meant to represent all of Southeast Asia, they never wanted one country to seem better or worse than the others. From foods to architecture to combat techniques, each character and tribe uses traditions from many countries. By blending these elements while remaining authentic, they created a universal story rooted in specificity.
“Disney’s known for our Easter eggs. But for me, the best Easter eggs about this film were the cultural ones,” said Nguyen. “When you looked at the dishes, you could go, ‘Oh, that’s a Thai dish. That’s a Malay dish. That’s a Vietnamese dish. That was a Vietnamese boat. That’s a Filipino weapon.'”
The multicultural approach didn’t stop there. “The name ‘Raya’ has significance in Malay, has significance in Thai, has significance in Sanskrit,” said Lim. “We didn’t want one country to represent one land in Kumandra, or for Kumandra to represent one country specifically. … At the same time, we didn’t want this made up culture that didn’t answer to any specific inspiration.”
As the resident comedy and action guy, Nguyen lights up when describing the different modes of combat seen in the film, rattling off the styles with boundless excitement. “All of Raya’s unarmed technique was Pencak silat, which was Malay, but when she picked up a sword, she was using Arnis, which was Filipino,” said Nguyen. “When Namaari fought, when she did unarmed, it was basically Muay Thai, except for a couple moves that were specifically traditional Vietnamese wrestling, which is that double-leg scissor takedown. When she picks up her blades, it’s Krabi–krabong. They’re very specific martial arts styles.”
One outcome they did not anticipate was the way the story would resonate during the pandemic. Throughout development and even in the film, Raya and her creators referred to the Druun, an evil spirit which turns people to stone, as a virus. In addition to giving their kids some fun characters to act out, “Raya and the Last Dragon” also provided them with the tools to discuss environmental disasters and humanity’s impact on the natural world.
“My favorite Disney movies are the ones that allow us to talk to our families about complex issues,” said Nguyen. “‘Zootopia’ allowed us to talk about racial bias. ‘Big Hero 6’ allows us to talk about grief. And with ‘Raya,’ obviously we wanted our kids to feel empowered, but it also allowed us to have those conversations about what we were going through.”