When the teaser and official trailer to Disney’s latest warrior princess animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, dropped, the influences of varying Southeast Asian culture sprinkled throughout the trailer was inescapable.
And that’s mainly because the Asian inspired movie, which will make its debut in theatres and on the new Disney+ streaming service, is a melting pot of different Southeast Asian cultures, fashion, food and locations, inspired mainly by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos and the Philippines.
According to producer Osnat Shurer, her biggest inspiration for the film were the people and communities that populate the region and she would know as the 51-year-old and her team traveled the region to do research for the film before the COVID-19 global travel lockdowns ensued.
“One of the things that inspired us the most and this kind of goes across the varying cultures and countries of Southeast Asia was food. The love of food. The way people come together around food, smells of gorgeous food itself and in the film, you can actually see it’s a journey of our main character learning to trust again and you can track that through the food,” said Shurer at a Disney+ Singapore press conference earlier today.
But more importantly, it was the people in the sense of community and the sense of people working together for the greater good that happens so much so often in the region, including Singapore, so I have to say that was what inspired me the most, and I can’t wait to come back.
Creating a film based on cultures other than your own can be a nerve-wracking experience. That said, Shurer does her best in making sure Raya and the Last Dragon culturally sensitive by ensuring she has a team of Southeast Asian folks involved in the creative storytelling of the tale, starting with two Southeast Asian writers for the film.
“People who we’ve worked with throughout the making of the film – anthropologists, dancers, musicians, architects textile experts, things like that – so the conversation is ongoing,” beamed Shurer. “There were a lot of people in the very key creative of the storytelling that were telling the story from their own hearts and lives and childhoods.”
In addition, the team also formed a trust called the Southeast Asia Story Trust – a body of people who can help inch the team towards the right direction and show them the way to portraying said cultures respectfully. (Fun fact: Disney also formed an Oceanic Trust to help the team behind Moana, a movie that Shurer also produced).
Recognising that it’s a gift to tell stories and have the ability to connect with numerous rich cultures that inspire, Shurer feels like its only pertinent that she gives an ode to the multiplicities of cultures and lands in the region and attempts to do this through the use of fabrics, patterns and certain principles to do so.
“You know one of the things we loved was just how many different cultures and traditions and religions there are in each country and there are many countries that make up the region,” said Shurer. “We have five different lands in the movie and so in each one we’re able to use inspiration with different kinds of fabrics and different kinds of patterns, depending on where they live.”
Of course, it’s not Disney without a little bit of magic and fantasy. Each land is influenced by underlying principles found in each country in the region but Shurer has sprinkled on some Disney magic in the making of the movie.
Whilst the marrying of fantasy and culture is a spectacle that remains to be seen, Shurer says she’s still ways away with completing Raya and the Last Dragon as the movie will be extending into publishing and parks in the foreseeable future.
Shurer couldn’t confirm plans for other future projects and films but one thing for sure, there’s no escaping the possibility. “I’m inspired by the strong women I’ve met with [and] strong women I hope to someday be,” said Shurer.
And in time to come, here’s to seeing more strong female leads in movies and TV.
Raya and the Last Dragon is scheduled to release on Disney+ and in theatres on 5 March 2021.
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