Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is notable not just for being Disney’s first film with a Southeast Asian lead character, but also for being one of the few Disney films with more than one female lead. There are three women at the center of Raya and the Last Dragon: warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), smart-talking dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), and fearsome rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), and they all have meaningful relationships with each other. Somehow, that’s pretty damn rare.
Even though Disney has an extensive pantheon of princess movies, few of them contain significant relationships between two female characters. Even Frozen (which is arguably not a Disney princess movie, but its own separate franchise, but I’m counting it here for argument’s sake) separates sisters Anna and Elsa for the majority of the movie. The sequel rectifies that somewhat, but Frozen 2 is still the exception, not the norm.
The lack of relationships between women in film isn’t just a Disney-movie problem: Lately, Disney is actually doing better than the rest of the film industry in that regard. The filmmakers behind Raya found that out when they were looking for past characters and relationships to draw upon. In the early days of production, they looked back at cinematic history, and quickly became stumped.
“I remember some of us sitting in the story room in the early days and we kept thinking, Well, what are examples that we can look to in mainstream films with the central relationship as a friendship between two female characters?” producer Osnat Shurer tells Polygon. “Not much. There really wasn’t much to look at. It was shocking to us.”
Looking at action films — for instance, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which falls within Disney’s own catalogue — it’s rare to see more than one female character on screen at a time. It’s especially rare to see multiple female characters interact in any weighty way. (A faux girl-power scene where the lady heroes briefly pose together doesn’t count.) Even though many shows for young girls showcase deep bonds between female characters, that rarely translates to the big screen, with very few exceptions.
“There are great action characters, but most of the female action heroes don’t have a sense of humor, are not necessarily warm, not necessarily as flawed, with as big a journey [as we wanted for Raya],” explains Shurer.
The Raya team ended up looking at their own relationships and people they knew to help them carve out the bonds in the movie. When it came to Raya and Namaari’s physical designs, they also looked at the different environmental factors the girls were raised in, and designed them specifically to be foils. While they are both athletic and good fighters, there were some key differences about their upbringing that set them apart.
“In the world of Heart [where Raya is from], if you look at the design, everything is circular and round like a drop, because they’re so connected to the dragon. [That’s] part of who Raya is,” says Shurer.
In contrast, the more militaristic Fang, known for its fearsome warriors, is all sharp lines and angles, and Namraari’s design has edges to match — not to mention a kick-ass haircut.
“When we saw our character designers’ first take on Namaari, we all went, Oh my God, she’s so cool,” laughs Shurer.
Raya and the Last Dragon is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on May 18.