Sisu, the dragon in Disney’s newest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, doesn’t breathe fire. She’s snake-like and blue-tinted, more furry than scaly, and more interested in making friends than overwhelming enemies.
That’s because the filmmakers behind Raya and the Last Dragon looked beyond Western dragons, or even East Asian ones. Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina in the film, was inspired by the Nāga of Southeast Asia, serpent-like creatures associated with water. The aesthetic choice is also one subtly steeped in symbolism.
“The difference between an Eastern or Chinese dragon versus the Nāga is that a Chinese dragon is based on luck and power,” explains screenwriter Qui Nguyen. “And the Nāga, because it’s water, it’s life and hope. It’s just that slight little difference. We didn’t want a dragon that came in to empower [human protagonist] Raya to hit people more; we wanted one that would inspire her to open up and trust.”
As for why Sisu looks less serpent-like and more fluffy and sparkly in the final design than traditional depictions of Nāga (leading some on the Internet to compare her to Elsa of Frozen fame), director Don Hall (Big Hero 6) says that has to do with approachability. “We pulled it a little bit more away from the reptilian. We wanted to make sure she didn’t just look like an animal.”
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, but it was important to the Southeast Asian filmmakers and cast members that the fantasy world brush against real-life cultural elements. Disney has come a long way from the days of Mulan’s culturally inaccurate haircut. Nowadays, the filmmakers regularly consult with a diverse group of representatives from the cultures they’re using as settings, as they did with Moana back in 2016. Raya marks another step forward; while Moana was written by three white men drawing on consultants for authenticity, both of Raya’s screenwriters come from Southeast Asia, and were able to bring their specific cultural identities into the movie.
A longtime lover of action movies, Nguyen specifically felt it was pertinent to incorporate martial arts from the real world. Four martial arts are specifically highlighted in Raya: Pencack silat, which is Indonesian and Malaysian; Muay Thai from Thailand; traditional Indonesian wrestling; and Arnis, from the Philippines.
“I really wanted to make sure that the martial arts that were in the film were very distinctly Southeast Asian,” says Nguyen. “I grew up on action movies, and sci-fi movies. But if I loved Star Wars, I couldn’t go out and study being a Jedi. If I love this movie, I can go out and study these martial arts that are real. These martial arts, food, and architecture are all real.”
Some reviewers have expressed frustration with seeing Southeast Asia portrayed as a monolithic culture, saying that while Raya has specific details from different cultures, it reductively paints them as one blended entity. That’s a valid viewpoint, especially considering how little screen time and nuance is given to Southeast Asia in Hollywood. But as screenwriter Adele Lim points out, there are places in Southeast Asia where multiple cultures do come together in a melting pot. She cites her home country of Malaysia, specifically the food, as a testament to that particular fusion.
“We have so many different people in this culture space,” she says. “It’s very easy to view those differences as things that drive us apart. But when you look at everything that’s wonderful about our culture, and particularly our street food — which is the best in the world — it’s wonderful because of all these different elements. [Food] is also our language of love and our language of community.”
As with any movie that focuses on a culture little-seen in mainstream Hollywood, there is an impossible expectation for Raya and the Last Dragon to be a perfect bastion of representation. Individual films like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Moana, and Coco that expand the perspective of Hollywood often take on the burden of representing entire cultures. And the way different filmmakers represent their cultures will vary, especially in fantasy-tinged stories. With Raya, the cast and crew approached cultural specificity by integrating a plethora of understated details, small elements that weave together to the fabric of the world.
Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the film’s hero, Raya, says she could go on and on about all these minute things — from the relationship between Raya and her father to the expectations Raya sets for herself. But she picks one tiny detail specifically that speaks to her.
“I love that when young Raya and [new childhood acquaintance] Namaari are going to see the Dragon Gem, they silently take off their shoes without even acknowledging it before they walk in,” she tells us. “Little things like that make it feel really authentic. There’s no explaining. It’s not really integral to the story, these little things. But that’s why it’s important, because they’re just existing in this world that feels really authentic to Southeast Asia.”
Raya and the Last Dragon is available March 5 on Disney Plus with Premier Access.
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