A version of this story about “Raya and the Last Dragon” first appeared in the special animation section of Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
It’s hard to think of another Walt Disney Animation Studios movie quite like “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a muscular, martial arts-flavored action movie about the power of trust — and, you know, dragons. (Granted, “Mulan” had dragons, but it also had songs, which “Raya” does not.) And while crafting a movie this complex and tonally singular is tough in any situation, the only thing tougher is crafting it twice. During a pandemic, no less.
That’s the predicament Disney faced on “Raya.” In 2020, after more than a year in production, the studio replaced the two original directors, both of whom were making their feature directorial debuts; brought in Disney vet Don Hall and indie filmmaker Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”); added a new producer and three new writers, including Qui Nguyen; and replaced original lead actor Cassie Steele with Kelly Marie Tran. (Paul Briggs, one of the original directors, is now a co-director and both he and original director John Ripa receive “story by” credits.)
“When we came on, we were building on a certain foundation in this idea of a fractured world needing to be unified,” said Hall, who oversaw a production that during the pandemic shutdown took place in people’s homes rather than the studio facilities. “The idea of trust came out pretty quickly in our collaboration. I think we all felt like it’s a specific enough theme that we could build this entire story around it and maintain all the things that were working in the previous versions and fix some of the problems. We just rallied to make every scene and every character have a point of view on that subject.”
One big change was to Raya herself. The earlier version of the character was stoic and leaned on some tired Asian tropes, which needed to change. “Some of my favorite heroic characters in action movies are smart alecks and they get in over their head,” said Hall. “To me, that’s what’s fun about characters that come in with a lot of confidence, but then quickly realize that they’re in over their head and have to think on their feet.” The new Raya had all of these qualities.
For Nguyen, navigating the more stereotypical aspects was key. “As a person who shares the same skin color as Raya, I wanted to avoid the trope of Asian characters being quiet,” Nguyen said. “I wanted the Asian hero to be someone that imbued and embodied something that my kids would want to be, someone who was quick with their wits as well as their fists.”
Yes, it was a lot of work. But the filmmakers, through clear communication, brought the crew together and delivered. This isn’t lost on them. “We keep saying it’s so much like the environment of the movie where people with very different skill sets and very different backgrounds come together for the greater good,” López Estrada said. “It was an incredible adventure.”