9 Ways ‘Raya and The Last Dragon’ Puts Southeast Asia in the Spotlight

As the first Disney movie centered around a Southeast Asian heroine, “Raya and The Last Dragon” is chock full of vivid details and references to the tropical region.

When NextShark spoke with the team behind the scenes, we learned that the team did a lot of extensive research to create the fantastical yet grounded world of Raya.


Below is the list of Southeast Asian references, myths and cultural inspirations that we feel have inspired Raya.

1. Raya was inspired by a history of strong female leaders in Southeast Asia.

According to co-writer Qui Nguyen, some of his inspirations include the legend of the Trưng Sisters, fearless Vietnamese warriors who fought to liberate the country from China’s rule centuries ago.

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For co-writer Adele Lim, who’s from Malaysia, her favorite inspirations include the strong matrilineal states in Malaysia and Tun Fatimah, a famous Malaysian warrior. “The thing people aren’t so aware of [is that] women in Southeast Asia have always had a certain standing. And even in this current day and age, whether it’s like standing in the family and society, economic power, they’re very empowered women,”  Lim added.

2. The writers chose Raya’s name because of its multiple meanings.

The team brainstormed multiple possible names for their titular heroine in consultation with the film’s Southeast Asia Story Trust, a team of Southeast Asian cultural experts assembled by producer Osnat Shurer.

When Lim came across the name “Raya,” she was immediately drawn to the name. “In Malay, it means ‘celebration’ and evokes this joyful time where people come together around a lot of food,” she said.

Lim also added that in Thai, it means the one who leads.

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3. Raya’s costume design came from many traditional Southeast Asian garments.

Raya’s hat resembles a “nón lá,” a traditional Vietnamese hat, with the top resembling a “stūpa,” a type of Buddhist shrine found in Southeast Asia.

Shurer said that the team designed Raya as a warrior, opting for more agile and less restrictive clothing.

“Every part of [Raya’s] costume is designed to be based on how she’s moving, who she is, what she’s doing,” Shurer added.

4. The world of Kumandra is composed of five dragon-like regions: Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine and Tail. Each region has its own architecture, geography and clothing inspired by the diverse region of Southeast Asia.

For example, the night markets of Talon were influenced by the Southeast Asian floating river markets. The environmental team paid a lot of attention to the details to make the markets feel real, including elements like the density of the crowds, the steam rising up from food stalls, the assortment of boats and lanterns.

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Shurer worked closely with the Southeast Asia Story Trust to construct an authentic representation of the region.

“A lot of what we did was look for commonalities, for example, recurring patterns. The design of a building or of anything is often reflective of the point of view of the people who are living in the country,” she said.

5. The design of the dragon Sisu, played by Awkwafina, is based on the Naga, a Thai mythological dragon.

Whereas western dragons tend to be destructive and fire-breathing, the team chose the Naga specifically because of its restorative and water-centric powers.

“The dragon itself, unlike western dragons or even a Chinese dragon, [is] based on the life-giving force of water,” Nguyen said.

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6. The martial arts in Raya are based on Southeast Asian martial arts, including Pencak Silat, Muay Thai, Vovinam and Arnis.

Featured Image via Dody Guci (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In addition to being a co-writer for the movie, Nguyen also acted as a martial arts consultant.

“It was really important to me that the fighting styles were grounded in physics that were real,” he shared.

7. Raya was not inspired by “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Despite some seemingly common themes and styles, the team emphasized that any similarities are coincidental.

Nguyen clarified that he’s excited to have the movie joining the show in celebrating an original legend based on Southeast Asian culture.

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There can never be too many westerns, too many space operas, too many great heroes that come from the east. I welcome all the martial arts and Asian stories that we can see,” he proudly exclaimed.

8. You will see many real-life Southeast Asian dishes in the movie.

Fish amok. Featured Image via Redison Productions by (CC BY-ND 2.0)

According to Fawn Veerasunthorn, head of story, the food in Kumandra consists of five flavors: spicy, salty, sweet, sour, bitter. Like the people of Kumandra, the five flavors differ from one another greatly while working very well together.

Tom yum. Featured Image via Takeaway (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Veerasunthorn shared that viewers will recognize many signature and obscure dishes from the region, including fish amok, tom yum, beef renandang, nam prik pla tu and spring rolls.

9. The petrified hand pose of the people of Kumandra was inspired by traditional hand greetings of the region.

The monsters from the movie, called Druun, have a special ability to turn Kumandran people into stone, petrifying them in a prayer pose reminiscent of traditional hand greetings in Southeast Asia.

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Co-director Carlos López Estrada shared that the team wanted a pose that signified hope.  

“We realized that we just needed to work on something that was more unique to our world, that spoke to the theme of water, also that gave us some hope that these people of Kumandra could be brought back,” he recalled. “Something that we came up with was this idea of a prayer pose that was them resting and feeling, essentially waiting to be brought back.”

As a love letter to Southeast Asia, “Raya and The Last Dragon” will also present Disney with its very first Southeast Asian princess, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran. When asked what Asian American viewers can expect from the movie, Tran emphasized the power of representation within the story.

Feature Images via Getty (left) and Disney (right)

“I want audiences to take away the idea that we are human beings who exist, who have important stories to tell, and our stories are worth telling. It feels like that, to me, is common sense…And I think what’s going to be really cool about it is when people recognize that the messages and the characters, the ability to relate to these characters is a universal thing. The more we’re able to have equal representation in the world, I think, the better the world would be.”

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“Raya and The Last Dragon” arrives in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access on March 5.

Featured Images via Disney

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