Disney’s newest animated film, Raya and the last dragon, sets a solo hero on a quest to save the fantasy world of Komandra from the Druun, a mindless crush who consumes everything on its way. At the very beginning of the film, Raya is a lonely warrior who wants to revive the last dragon.
But from the beginning the filmmakers behind it Raya intends to undermine the narrative of the chosen one.
“She believes she will raise a dragon, and the dragon will solve all the world’s problems. And not the dragon. The dragon does something much deeper, ”explains screenwriter Adele Lim.
Instead, Sisu, the movie title’s mystical final dragon, inspires Raya to bond with those she once considered enemies. The idea of connection and trust fueled the film’s creative direction and informed many of the big decisions the filmmakers had made – including the ending, which ultimately adapted to the location of the story, tell Lim and producer Osnat Shurer Polygon.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon]
The Druun who plague Komandra and turn civilians to stone have no agenda. They are a faceless, thoughtless entity that seeks to turn humanity to ashes and cannot be killed with traditional weapons. But that’s not how they started. Shurer says the faceless villains were more sentimental and combative in the early stages of the film.
“The more we thought about it, the deeper we went into the type of story we wanted to tell. We knew it was important to be about people,” says Shurer. “It’s about the characters. It’s about Raya versus Namaari. It’s almost two sides of the same coin.
The decision to complicate Namaari as a character – and develop her unique relationship with Raya – ultimately impacted the Druun themselves. At one point, Namaari controlled the Druun and was more of a traditional Disney villain. But Lim says that as they delved deeper into the character and gave her a connection with Raya, she evolved into a more nuanced and ultimately more personable character. The more archetypal bad villain didn’t fit her story.
Raya and Namaari have a unique relationship with a Disney movie. Although Disney villains like Cruella de Vil and Maleficent remain popular, the studio’s newer films have eliminated the traditional villain and found more menacing opponents in forces of nature like in Frozen 2 and Moana or whodunnit turns one Great Hero 6 and Zootopia. In the past, when Disney villains already had relationships with the protagonists, it was usually one with inherently unbalanced power dynamics, like Mother Gothel and Rapunzel from Tangled
“They knew each other as children and now see each other as enemies. They are also secretly as fascinated by each other, “says Lim.” It was a very new and exciting relationship for the entire creative team. “
Reinterpreting the Druun as an overwhelming force with no agenda made them a thematically more powerful enemy for Raya and Namaari. Scary enough, this became a very topical force to deal with in 2021.
“We even talked about them like a plague,” says Shurer, making it clear that the perspective was discussed “years and years ago.”
But while the threat from the film shifted as the character dynamics developed, there was one key plot point that the filmmakers knew had to happen from the start: Raya had to lose Sisu. In fact, at the climax of the film, Namaari accidentally shoots Sisu. The last dragon has disappeared and the human characters have to find out if they can even defend themselves against the Druun without the dragon magic that has protected them for so long.
“It undermines Raya’s original expectation that Sisu would come and wave a wand and everything would be fine,” explains Shurer. “The solution is between us. We have to learn to trust each other and to come together. We knew the dragon had to be taken out of the picture. “
Sisu would always die, but there was a back-and-forth over whether or not she and the rest of the dragons would actually return. Director Don Hall says there was a version where Sisu was actually the very last dragon with no way for the others to return. Filmmakers pondered for a long time whether or not the returning dragons would undermine the ultimate message of the film. But Shurer pushed for a happy ending from the start and wanted a big Disney moment that “got your heart singing”. After much back and forth, they finally decided to embrace the happy ending – something that actually speaks more to the film’s cultural ethos.
“What we’ve been researching psychologically is, if we are the solution, why are we bringing back the magical mystical creatures?” explains Shurer. “The place we arrived at is a place that is more tied to a Southeast Asian and South Asian perspective. When we found the solution for ourselves, we earned the right to manifest the mystical.”
Raya and the last dragon is available on Disney Plus Premier Access.