INTERVIEW: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Co-Writer Adele Lim
Raya and the Last Dragon marks Disney’s first foray into Southeast Asian cultures and traditions. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, the movie centres on the titular Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as she embarks on a quest to find the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) and to save her land, Kumandra, from the Druun, an evil force that turns people into stone and divides the land into five factions. Hopeful and gorgeously animated, the movie is an epic action-adventure comedy exploring the importance of trust and unity, with rich Southeast Asian influences at the heart of its story.
We recently had the pleasure to sit down with co-writer Adele Lim (who also co-wrote Crazy Rich Asians) to talk about the movie and her creative process of integrating Southeast Asian cultures into the story.
First of all, big congratulations on Raya and the Last Dragon! I want to start at the beginning. Where did the inspiration of the story first come from? And at what point were the Southeast Asian cultures brought into the story?
Thank you! I heard that you were born and raised in Indonesia. It’s so funny cause I went to school and it was all Bahasa Melayu, but I had some Indonesian friends who taught me Bahasa Indonesia, and both sound the same but they’re all actually very different, right? [laughing]
But anyway, speaking of the story and the inspiration, the project was actually in development even before I joined as a screenwriter. And when I came in, they had already done a lot of visual development. The idea that Kumandra was going to be divided, and that there would be a strong female protagonist who befriends a water dragon inspired by the myth of Naga was already developed. The team had also just returned from a trip to Southeast Asia when I came in, and they were so inspired by everything that they saw; they felt like they’ve never experienced a culture like that before, and they wanted that to be the central inspiration of the movie. I was so excited when I heard about all that because I grew up in Malaysia, and as you probably know, there are no other major Hollywood movies that celebrate our cultures, the cultures of Southeast Asia.
The world that we have, the Kumandra, is a fantasy land, and the nations that are parts of Kumandra do not exactly represent a particular country in Southeast Asia, so it’s not like “Oh, Indonesia is reflected in this land, Malaysia in this land, and so on.” The team, to their credit, was challenged to go even deeper to find the source of what’s really inspired a lot of our cultures. When you take a look at a lot of the countries and the traditions in Southeast Asia, you’ll realize that the main source of our cultures is actually a sense of community and togetherness — it’s really not about us as individuals or even our family, but it’s about taking care of each other and the people around us, that’s the main idea.
And also, when we came up with the story three years ago, and you look around at the world and all these countries around the world, it’s very easy to see that we’re all so divided. Even within your country, Indonesia, there are so many races, cultures, religions, and influences from outside and inside that will easily make the people divided. But what really makes the cultures and the country so wonderful — whether the arts or even the foods — is because of all these different influences somehow coming together. There are two ways of looking at the world: either you see these differences as ways to divide people or you see it as something that can really enrich your cultures, and we wanted to show that in the world of Kumandra, and that was the central inspiration and our starting point.
You and Qui Nguyen are both writers of Southeast Asia descent, so of course, it’s important and even personal for the both of you to capture the SEA influences in the movie in an authentic way. Was there any particular process or perhaps research to make sure the movie accomplished that?
Yes, definitely, and this was actually even beyond us, the scriptwriters. Our producer Osnat Shurer previously worked on Moana, and she carried out a lot of cultural works to make sure that they were being respectful and authentic and true to the cultures. So similarly with Raya and the Last Dragon, we have a creative team who traveled to Southeast Asia more than once, and we also assembled a trust involving many, many cultural experts from Southeast Asia and had them come to us for a discussion or to immerse us in the cultures. There was one time when we saw a performance of Gamelan and traditional dancing just so that the team can really feel it.
Also, we have a lot of people in our creative team who grew up in Southeast Asia, or their families have roots in Southeast Asia, which is just as important. It’s not enough to just learn from going to a cultural performance or from some research, because these are all the things from how we all, Southeast Asians, grew up. We put a lot of small details — whether it’s in the fruits or the arts or the costume designs — in every layer of the movie. So hopefully when people watch Raya, even when they know nothing about Southeast Asia and even though it’s a fantasy world, they can still feel the love and authenticity that me and Qui [Nguyen] and our story artists have put into the movie.
The big theme at the core of the movie is the importance of trust and unity. Was this something that the team initially wanted to explore from the get-go or was this something that came later on during the story development?
I’m gonna say both. We knew from the beginning that we had all these different, divided lands. Then as the story was developed along the way, we knew that we wanted the main theme of the movie to be about how to bring people together. And, again, even though it’s a fantasy world, the issues faced by Kumandra are issues that we also face in the real world. So we wanted to make sure that the solution that Raya finds in the movie is also rooted in the real world. If the magical water dragon is the primary solution to all the problems in Kumandra and we only stick with that in the movie, then that’s not the truth. That’s why the dragon, Sisu, is not this all-powerful creature that Raya thinks it is. She’s silly, a little vulnerable, and even has to be protected, but underneath that humor, there’s a deeper wisdom, and we wanted to make sure that we touched on that because Naga in our cultures is a mythical being. So even though she’s funny, she still has that higher wisdom that Raya will discover along the way.
We also wanted to really focus on the question of what does it take to bring people together? And at the end of the day, the answer is trust. You have to trust that the people that you view as the enemy or you view as different from you also want what’s best for all of us. So this process of trusting, we wanted to make sure that it was always realistic; that it’s not easy; that when you’re doing it, it doesn’t mean you’re doing it once and it will always work. We see Raya trying to trust other people and gets betrayed; she gets stabbed in the back and disappointed over it, and as a result, becomes disillusioned by this broken world. Yet still, she gets up and she reaches out to trust somebody because that’s what a true hero does. Her journey is eventually not about being the best or the strongest fighter in Kumandra, but it is really about being this figure who can inspire other people to trust one another.
You spoke about Sisu being inspired by Naga, who is mostly known as this wise, elegant creature, so why is it integral to make her a fun and goofy character and basically far from what we imagine when we talk about Naga?
[laughing] There are two reasons. First, we wanted her to not be the hero and savior that Raya thinks she is going to be. She assumes that Sisu is gonna be this powerful, wise deity, but when she wakes her up as an adult, Sisu doesn’t seem to be any of those things. What we wanted is to make the journey a little bit harder for Raya to understand. But ultimately, what the dragon does and brings to the team is exactly what they need, which is to encourage them to understand the spark inside them and make them recognize that it is the same spark that they see in other people, even if it’s their enemy. So it’s all eventually about subverting Raya’s expectations and also subverting the audiences’ expectations. Western audiences, mostly, used to only seeing dragons as these fire-breathing, powerful creatures, and they’re not really familiar with the folklore of Naga in Southeast Asia, so we just wanted to challenge their expectations a little bit and hopefully made them fall in love with this character and culture.
I want to talk a little bit about the name Raya. In Bahasa Indonesia, and I believe in Melayu too, Raya means celebration. Was this a part of the consideration of naming her Raya?
Yes, absolutely! You know, naming a Disney heroin is a very important task. This is one example of how wonderful it is to have all these different people from Southeast Asia inside the room where decisions are made. So when we were going through it, trying to come up with a name for her, I remember Raya came up and I was so excited because like you said, in Malaysia, Hari Raya is the biggest celebration, and it also means “big” and “grand.” And at that moment, Fawn Veerasunthorn, the head of our story artist who grew up in Thailand, said that “Oh, in Thai, Raya also means a great leader.” So it was very auspicious that the name had all these very different meanings. We weren’t initially sure about using it at first, because people here are not used to hearing the name Raya. But the more people we brought into the conversation, the more meanings we discovered behind the name, and that’s how we ended up naming her Raya.
Food plays an important role in Raya and the Last Dragon. It symbolises the theme of unity and togetherness that the movie explores. So what exactly is the reason behind using food as the metaphor for the movie’s central theme?
You have it exactly right. The food is the metaphor for trust in this movie. The initial reason came from not exactly a deep or profound place. We used a lot of foods in the movie simply because in Southeast Asia we’re all obsessed with foods. We wake up in the morning, and the first thing we’re thinking about is food. When we’re eating, we’re already thinking about the next meal. Everything is food, food, food. But as we went deeper, we realized that food is our language of love. Even when our parents do not always say “I love you,” they show their love through food. We see it in Raya and her father when he tries to teach her a larger life lesson while making a bowl of soup at the beginning of the movie — it’s a way to show the affection between these two characters.
We also used food to be able to track Raya’s arc throughout the movie. If you take a look at all the scenes involving Raya and food, you can see her transformation as a character. As a child, she enjoys the soup that her father makes and all the foods that are meant to be shared with the other nations when they are invited to her home. But when she grows up, and after she lost her father and now that she’s in a broken world, she doesn’t trust anybody, so she only eats this jackfruit jerky that she dries herself. Then she meets all these different people and she begins to open up and trusts them, and you have this beautiful scene with them on a boat sharing a meal together. And it’s all done in Southeast Asian style; it’s not like, “Oh, I order one thing and you order a different thing,” it’s all together and they all partake in it together as a family. So even though they’re not really a family, they feel like a family when they’re eating together. The food is also everything that they bring from all the different cultures, like what I talked about before. What makes Southeast Asian foods so delicious is all these different elements that come together and they create something even more wonderful.
And Raya’s terrible jerky also symbolises her lack of trust. It’s dry and tasteless and made only with one ingredient — the complete opposite of what a community is about.
You got it exactly right again! So thank you! We didn’t overly state it in the movie, but that is absolutely our intention. The jerky is just made of one fruit and Raya makes it herself. It doesn’t taste good, it’s just enough for her to survive. And it is not joyful or meant to be shared. It’s not a language of love, it is just purely for survival. And who wants that?
The heart of the movie is the relationship between Raya and Sisu, but I found the most interesting dynamic is the one between Raya and Namaari. I feel like they’re basically the same person who also share the same goal. They just have different trajectories. Can you share a bit about the creative process of creating this complex relationship between them?
[laughing] I love that we’re having this conversation because your insights are absolutely correct! When we started the story process, Namaari was much more of the stereotypical villain. She was older, she was much more destructive, and there was no history with her and Raya. And we were always challenged by the Disney brain trust, “How can we make her more interesting? How can we make her deeper as a character? How can we make the dynamic of Raya and Namaari really speaks to the whole story of trust that we’re trying to tell?” So off of that, we gave them a backstory that they knew each other as children; that there was some kind of connection between the two of them. But then as they grow up, they become enemies, though they’re also still drawn to each other.
When you really look at Namaari and Raya, you see that they’re both actually two sides of the same coin and that they’re very much the same character. Both of them are strong women who are raised to be leaders, and everything that they do comes from a protectiveness for their family, for their community, and for their land. The only difference between them is that Raya has the wisdom of her father and his vision of a united world, and then she also got to meet Sisu, who shares the same wisdom as her father, while Namaari doesn’t have all of that. If the table is flipped, Namaari might have been the hero of the movie. And that was so important for us to show it to the audience. We don’t want the usual typical villain, but a villain who is believable and you might meet in real life, probably somebody who believes fiercely in what they do and someone you have to bring them over to your side to make them understand that the two of you are ultimately on the same side.
Kelly Marie Tran is excellent as Raya. She embodies her fearlessness while still showcasing her vulnerability. Did bringing her into the role of Raya add or even maybe change something in the character?
Kelly Marie Tran is the reason we have Raya today. When we started out in the writing process, Raya was a very different character. She was more stoic, more serious, a little bit harder, and not as warm or funny or vulnerable. And we tried to adjust Raya just to really make her more relatable and more fun to watch and more engaging. But it really wasn’t until Kelly came in and voiced the character that Raya really came to life. Part of the animation process is every single frame is carefully constructed, every little detail, like a hair flip or a blink, is carefully planned, so the only time you get a sense of “real life” or spontaneity is when the actor is recording the voice.
I still remember it so clearly, the first scene that Kelly recorded was the one where Raya’s praying to try in bringing Sisu back, and Kelly improvised some of the lines and made it so much more emotional than even what Qui and I had written. And when she did that, all of us were, like, crying and got so emotional. [laughing] We just knew that there was a very special feeling, and we really worked hard to then make it a part of the character; for her to have a more vulnerable and emotional side, and I think that’s the reason why the character works. Kelly managed to breathe life into the character that way.
Raya and the Last Dragon is practically an action-adventure movie. And when we’re talking about that genre, we tend to expect that the climax of the movie will most likely be a final showdown between the hero and the big bad. But in Raya, the climax is more emotionally grounded. So what was the reason behind choosing to end the movie on that note? [spoilers ahead]
True, we’re practically an epic action-adventure. There’s no question that Raya is an amazing fighter; we’ve seen it in the movie. She doesn’t have to prove herself that way. But at the end of the day — this also goes back to your question about our inspiration from Southeast Asia — it was not just about superficial things and the way it looks on the outside, it was really also about the heart of all our cultures, which is the feeling of community. So in a way, it becomes a thing of Eastern storytelling vs. Western storytelling.
In a typical Western story, movies like Raya are most likely about the hero together with their friends using pure force to defeat the villain and emerge victorious. And that’s not the story that we want to focus on. We’re trying to tell a story about trust. So in the end, even though our hero is strong and is a fighter, what really saves the day is her being able to take a step back; her being able to trust her friends and even her enemy because she sees there’s something in them that actually wants the best for all of them, and that’s what ultimately leads her to have the courage to take herself out of the equation.
I remember when our director Don Hall pitched it, we initially thought that it’s crazy. Then our co-director John Ripa, who is an insanely talented storyboard artist, did the board for what Don just pitched, and the moment we saw it, we thought that a) it worked, and b) it was emotional. Even if it was just in the rough board, we could all feel it and it felt good and emotional and most importantly true to the story we’re trying to tell. So at that moment, we realized that that was what we’re gonna end the movie with. What’s crazy is that, this has never been done in other Disney animated before; killing the hero of the story and bringing her back later. [laughing] But I’m really glad we went that way.
The movie came out at a poignant time, right when hate crimes against the Asian and Asian-American community in the United States are devastatingly high. If there’s a thing or a feeling that you hope people can take away from the movie, especially in regards to this matter, what would it be?
The movie really feels relevant when you think about what our world is going through and the division and the challenges that we’re facing and also the hate and the vitriol and the violence that one group of people is exhibiting towards another. So I hope what people can take away from the movie is that first of all, if you are in the Asian and Asian-American community, even though we face all of these prejudices and these challenges, we have to understand and believe that we are not alone; we’re there for each other. And what has been so wonderful and heartwarming in this terrible, difficult time is that even with this violence, we are all still there for each other even if it’s just through social media. It’s wonderful to see all these different communities banding together to help lift up people who have been victimised and also spreading awareness. Hopefully, through our movie, people, whether they’re Asian or not, can see that this is an ideal world that is very much within our grasp if we can just get past viewing each other as the enemy or as someone to act out against. So if there’s one important lesson that we can take away from the movie is that.
Full Review of Raya and the Last Dragon – Click Here