All About the Cultural Specificity in Raya and the Last Dragon

Disney’s newest animated creature, Sisu from Raya and the Last Dragon, doesn’t breathe fire. She is a blue-tinted snake-like, furrier than scaly, and more interested in making friends than overwhelming enemies. The reason for this is that the filmmakers who created this animated movie looked beyond Western dragons or even East Asian ones. Sisu, who is voiced by Awkwafina in this film, was greatly inspired by the Nāga of Southeast Asia, creatures who look like serpents that are associated with water. The artistic choice is also one subtly steeped in symbolism.

All About the Cultural Specificity in Raya and the Last Dragon
All About the Cultural Specificity in Raya and the Last Dragon
The Screenwriter of Raya and the Last Dragon with an Explanation

Screenwriter Qui Nguyen explains that the difference between a Chinese or Eastern dragon versus the Nāga is that the Chinese dragon is based on power and luck. The Nāga, because it’s water, is hope and life. It’s just that little difference that may confuse people. They didn’t want a dragon that came in to empower Raya to hit people more. They wanted one that would inspire her to open up more and have the willingness to trust.

Director Don Hall explains why Sisu looks less serpent-like and more sparkly and fluffy in the final design than traditional depictions of Nag. He says that this has to do with approachability as they pulled it a little bit more away from the reptilian. They wanted to make sure that Sisu didn’t just look like an animal.

Raya and the Last Dragon
All About the Cultural Specificity in Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra. It was important to the Southeast Asian cast members and filmmakers that the fantasy world brush against real-life cultural elements. Disney has come a long way from the days of the culturally-inaccurate haircut of Mulan.

A Wide Range of Fighting Styles Was Also Included

As being a longtime lover of action movies, Nguen specifically felt it was pertinent to incorporate martial arts from the real world. Four martial arts are specifically highlighted in Raya: Muay Thai from Thailand, Pencak silat, which is Malaysian and Indonesian, traditional Indonesian wrestling, and Philippine’s Arnis.