But shaping Raya’s character took time. “There was a very stereotypical samurai story that you could tell — which we could easily have fallen into,” says Nguyen. The filmmakers wanted to avoid the “boring trope” of a quiet badass, like Uma Thurman’s Bride in Kill Bill: “It’s hard for a kid to want to be that … there’s no personality there to attain as a kid.”
Namaari, Raya’s friend-turned-nemesis, hews more closely to this archetype, but she too changed a lot in development. In an early scene, she was to save people by doing “super-athletic martial arts things,” says Nguyen. But then “we were like, ‘Oh crap, we’re only 15 minutes into the film and now we’re all on Namaari’s side. And it’s called Raya and the Last Dragon.’” The scene was cut and Namaari reimagined as more of an antagonist.
The team also speaks about developing the film’s tone and style. To set the mood, the filmmakers created a playlist early on. “I remember Don, the very first day, said, ‘We need a badass soundtrack: let’s look at contemporary stuff, let’s look at hip hop,’” recalls López Estrada. “We didn’t go quite as far as hip hop, but in the first iterations of the mood, we definitely tried some Kanye West songs.”
The plan was to make a film that looked like no other Disney feature. López Estrada, whose background is in live action, explains how the crew used everything from certain camera lenses to a heavy film grain to achieve a striking cinematic look. The works of Spielberg, Taika Waititi, and Edgar Wright were all reference points.
But Raya isn’t limited to this kind of realism. It opens with an arresting 2d sequence that evokes the Indonesian shadow puppetry known as wayang kulit. The idea to pay homage to this tradition came early, but the sequence posed challenges: “We had to do some r&d as we were in production,” says López Estrada.
“That’s what I love about animation,” adds Hall. “You can take some big stylistic swings, and it all plays together. Probably more than even live action, it’s forgiving, in terms of big stylistic choices in the same film.”
Raya is available on Disney+. Read our review round-up here.