In an exclusive shared with Entertainment Weekly, Disney shared the first fully-rendered CGI image from the film, which features Raya, the daughter of a chief, along with Tuk Tuk, who director Don Hall dubbed as a cross between a bear and “an insect version of an armadillo.” As a sinister force threatens the kingdom of Kumandra, Raya, and Tuk Tuk must leave their home in the Heart Lands and find the last dragon to help them stop the evil Druun.
This also came with the news that Raya will now be voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, best known as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Tran takes over the part from Cassie Steele. This is the first time a Southeast Asian actress will be the lead in a Disney animated feature. As Hall explained, “she is Raya — just her buoyancy and her positivity, but yet there’s a strength as well to Kelly and the character.” The film will also star Awkwafina as Sisu, a dragon trapped in a human body who needs the help of Raya so she can reclaim her dragon form. A third protagonist is yet to be announced.
Also joining the film is playwright Qui Nguyen, who will write the film with Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim.
Hall, who directs the movie with Carlos López Estrada, also discussed how the film has come together even as the production team was separated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making this one of the first ever Disney animated features to be made remotely, with crew members working from home and over Zoom. But the work was all worth it for Hall, who calls this “the most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen.” Paul Briggs and John Ripa will co-direct the film.
WDAS’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee said in a statement, “As filmmakers, Don and Carlos bring a combination of animation know-how and emotional storytelling to Raya and the Last Dragon, bringing our fantasy adventure to surprising, original, and dynamic heights. They both saw the potential for this film and had a strong vision for the story, especially for our lead character, played by the wonderfully talented Kelly Marie Tran. And no small feat, directors Don and Carlos, writers Qui and Adele, and the entire crew of 400 Disney Animation artists are making this film together, while separated and working from home.”
The film will be the first Disney animated movie to be inspired by Southeast Asia, including nations like Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. The film was important to have accurate representation of these cultures, as Nguyen explained: “When you’re telling a story and you’re just doing it based on research, you end up always having to do it from the high end. To have the artists who represent those cultures in there to be able to give the subtleties of what our families are actually like, what our relationships are actually like, has given a lot of nuances to this great adventure… To be able to have some [heroes] that look like me and my kids, it’s gonna matter to a lot of folks.”
With the film half-animated, the production process and the state of the world strangely matched the world of the film, as López Estrada put it: “I don’t know if Disney has ever made a movie that reflects so much what is happening with the world outside. Even though our team has been working on this movie for years and years and years, it’s going to feel like an idea that we had maybe a month ago because it talks so much about the themes and the questions and the hope that’s happening today and also the lack of hope, and this wrestling with all these really, really important emotions that are happening right now.”
Originally announced at the 2019 D23 Expo, Raya and the Last Dragon is scheduled to soar into theaters March 12th, 2021.