Disney’s newest animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, sets up a solo hero on a quest to save the fantasy world of Komandra from the Druun, a mindless swarm that consumes everything in its path. In the very beginning of the movie, Raya is a lone warrior on a mission to revive the last dragon.
But from the get go, the filmmakers behind Raya intended to subvert the Chosen One narrative.
“She thinks she’s going to awaken a dragon, and the dragon will solve all the world’s problems. And the dragon doesn’t. The dragon does something much more profound,” explains screenwriter Adele Lim.
Sisu, the mystical last dragon of the movie’s title, instead inspires Raya to bond with those she once considered enemies. The idea of connection and trust fueled the movie’s creative direction, and informed many of the big choices that the filmmakers made — including the ending, which ultimately changed to fit where the story wound up going, Lim and producer Osnat Shurer tell Polygon.
The Druun that plague Komandra and turn the civilians to stone don’t have any sort of agenda. They are a faceless, mindless entity that seeks to turn humanity to ash and can’t be slayed by traditional weapons But they didn’t start out that way. Shurer says that in the early stages of the film the faceless villains were more sentient and fightable.
“The more we thought about it, the more we dug deeper into the kind of story we wanted to tell, we knew it was important that it’s about humans,” Shurer says. “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 — ended up affecting the Druun themselves. At one point, Namaari controlled the Druun and was more of a traditional Disney villain. But Lim says that when they dove deeper into the character and chose to give her a connection to Raya, she evolved into a more nuanced and ultimately sympathetic character. The more archetypical evil villain didn’t suit her tale.
Raya and Namaari have a unique relationship for a Disney movie. Though Disney villains like Cruella de Vil and Maleficent continue to be popular, the studio’s more recent movies have done away with the traditional baddie, finding more threatening adversaries in natural forces like in Frozen 2 and Moana or whodunnit twists in Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. In the past, when Disney villains did have existing relationships with the protagonists, it was usually one with inherently unbalanced power dynamics, such as Mother Gothel and Rapunzel of Tangled or Scar and Simba in The Lion King. But Namaari and Raya start on equal footing as children. As they grow up, they are less direct foes and more dramatic foils.
“They knew each other as children and now view each other as enemies. They are also kind of secretly kind of like drawn intrigued by each other,” says Lim. “It was a very new, exciting relationship for the whole creative team.”
Reimagining the Druun as an overwhelming force without an agenda made them a more thematically powerful enemy for Raya and Namaari. Uncannily enough, that became a very timely force to deal with in 2021.
“We even used to talk about them like a plague,” Shurer says, clarifying that the perspective was discussed “years and years ago.”
But while the threat of the movie shifted as the character dynamics evolved, there was one major plot point the filmmakers knew would have to happen from the very beginning: Raya needed to lose Sisu. Indeed, in the movie’s climax, Namaari accidentally shoots Sisu. The last dragon is gone and the human characters need to figure out if they can even defend against the Druun without the dragon magic that’s protected them this long.
“It subverts Raya’s original expectation that Sisu would come and wave a wand and everything would be alright,” explains Shurer. “The solution is among us. We have to learn to trust one another and get together. We knew that the dragon would have to be taken out of the picture.”
Sisu was always going to die, but there was some back and forth on whether or not she and the rest of the dragons would actually return. Director Don Hall says there was a version where Sisu was indeed the very last dragon, with no possibility of the others returning. The filmmakers thought long about whether or not the dragons coming back would undermine the film’s ultimate message. But Shurer pushed for a happy ending from the very beginning, wanting a big Disney moment that made your “heart sing.” Eventually, after much back and forth, they decided to embrace the happy ending — something that actually speaks more to the cultural ethos of the film.
“What we were digging into psychologically is if we are the solution, why are we bringing the magical mystical creatures back in?” explains Shurer. “The place where we arrived is a place that’s more connected to a more Southeast Asian and South Asian perspective, which is when we found the solution for ourselves that we earned the right to manifest the mystical.”