During a special presentation with select press last Tuesday, the creative team behind Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon revealed the rest of the ensemble that joins Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina in the first Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy animation set to release this March. Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons coexisted in harmony. But when an evil force called the Druun threaten their world, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, the Druun have returned and it is up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and find the missing pieces to the Dragon Gem to rid their land of evil and unite its divided people.
After viewing 30-minutes of footage of Raya prior to the event, the Q&A panel, which consisted of directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada; producer Osnat Shurer; and, screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, finally announced the rest of the new characters in the film. Korean American Daniel Dae Kim was first announced as Chief Benja, Raya’s father, who trained his daughter to become a Guardian of the Dragon gem, which protected the land of Kumandra from the evil Druun. “We really wanted somebody you could feel that warmth and compassion with and yet that sense of authority,” says Lim. “And Daniel Dae Kim, within our community of Asian Americans in the United States, has done so much in terms of really promoting visibility for people who are underrepresented. And just him as a human being with so much warmth but again, you feel that strife. And it was just such a great piece of casting for us.”
Raya’s friend-turned-nemesis Namaari is the antagonist of the film. Namaari is from another tribe who pretends to be friends with Raya in order to gain her trust and break it immediately when an opportunity arises. Namaari will be played by Marvel star and British Chinese actress Gemma Chan. “When we were crafting this character, it was a character that we knew was going to be a bad guy that had to be Raya’s equal in every way,” Nguyen explains. “But also, one that I think always are the best — a bad guy who is one that you understand, and that you have sympathy for. In a strange way, you want to see them turn. And, with Gemma, she was able to work with that kind of nuance and subtlety to also show the pain of what Namaari was going through. So, even though she was our bad guy, our big bad, we always had, like, “whew, I wish they could get along.” That feeling was always there, and it was a hard tightrope to be on. But she did it wonderfully.”
Now comes Raya’s band of sidekicks she meets along the way. Along with Sisu, Raya encounters a fast-talking-young shrimp boat restaurateur named Boun who helps them escape from Namaari and her crew. He is played by Lao-Chinese American actor, Izaac Wang. “We had auditioned a lot of young gentleman, and we just weren’t finding it because it’s a difficult character,” says Shurer. “He’s an adult in a kid’s body, and yet there are moments of showing his vulnerability. And he’s also fun and he’s also a little sassy. We were towards the end of auditions and Izaac Wang came in and just nailed it.”
As Raya continues her journey, she is conned by an actual baby named Noi and her little monkey-like goons called Ongis. Raya is able to capture them and retrieve her items, but sees how useful Noi and her Ongis are and they tag along to help her, of course, for a price. Noi is played by Vietnamese American actress Thalia Tran. “Thalia is amazing,” Shurer reveals. “She’s actually fourteen. She’s not a baby. But she’s a wonderful actress, and we gave her this not very easy challenge, which is you need to express where Little Noi’s expressing emotion. Little Noi has points of humor. She’s funny, she’s scary, she’s good, she’s bad. And Thalia somehow found this way to vocalize where you feel like you know what it is that Little Noi is saying. Thalia Tran did a good job with that.”
Raya will need more than just Sisu, the witty Boun , and little Noi and her team of bandits. She will need brawn in order to complete her mission to find the gems and that’s where Tong comes in. As part of a merciless tribe of warriors, Tong is the last one standing after an attack by the Druun. Raya convinces him to join her quest and hopefully, restore Kumandra the way it was before the Druun. Tong is played by none-other-than Marvel hero and British Chinese actor, Benedict Wong. “He is such a force of nature and he’s elemental in his power,” Hall says of Wong. “Every recording session with Benedict was so much fun, and watching him become the character and how he physicalizes his performance and never wears down, never gets tired and gives you a different version with each take. In fact, we generally had to stop him or he would still be going.”
Of course, we can’t forget Raya’s loyal pillbug, TukTuk, who is voiced by Walt Disney Animation’s favorite, Alan Tudyk. After having played several parts in Pixar and Disney animated films, Tudyk continues the tradition of playing a small part in creating the loveable creature.
There you have it, the complete main cast to Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. Tell us what you think of the casting choices.
Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon will premiere on Disney+ premier on March 5.
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