The story of Disney’s newest animated movie ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, out now in the UAE, is one that transcends race or nationality. Featuring the voice talents of stars such as Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan and Daniel Dae Kim, it’s a story about unity and a community learning to trust one another.
Lebanese animator Louaye Moulayess, who worked on the movie, says he identified with the themes of the movie and found a connection with the tale that is rooted in South East Asian heritage.
“I’m always a fan of trust and bringing people together. If only we can all come in together and make a better world,” he said over a Zoom interview with Gulf News.
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ has been widely praised for its storyline and rich, beautiful animation, and is the sixth highest-grossing film of 2021. It follows warrior princess Raya, who is from the fictional land of Kumandra where humans and dragons once lived together. After the dragons sacrifice themselves to save the land from monsters named Druun, Kumandra is split up due to a conflict over a magical gemstone the dragons left behind. Years later, the Drunn are back and Raya goes on a mission to find the last dragon and bring her community together.
Moulayess talks to Gulf News about how his love for the 1994 classic ‘Lion King’ brought him full circle to Disney and his advice to those who want to pursue a career in animation.
Could you tell me a bit about your journey as an animator and how you began working for Disney?
I was born in Lebanon. And I grew up watching Disney movies all the time and I started to notice that my friends started to not watch as much as I. I kept watching, kept watching, kept watching. For me it was one movie that I saw — it was Lion King. When I saw it I felt something. I knew I wanted to part of something like this. I always saw Walt Disney’s name; I thought it was just one person making those movies when I was a kid. So when I was 18/19 I talked to my parents and said this is what I wanna do. So I pursued my studies and kept applying to Disney until they let me in.
What was it like to work on ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’?
Raya is a very special one. Because of COVID and everything we did it all at home. So I think it will go down in history… I think we’re the first doing this, like a complete movie from home. So that was special. And just working for Disney, you know whatever you’re going to do millions of people are going to watch what you do, and as an artist it’s a great gift to have your work seen by a lot of people and enjoyed. It’s a great thing.
A lot of animators work on one film and you said you’ve been working from home through the whole process. Can you run me through the process of collaborating and how does it work from beginning to end?
A lot of Zoom meetings for this one. Because you know animation is a collaborative project. At the studio we’re always stopping by each of others’ office — ‘What you think about this?’ ‘Do you have this?’ So it just came together online and it’s just a lot of Zoom meetings, a lot of talking… Each movie has one direction to follow and of course the directors guide us with that. It was it was just like being at work but instead of walking up and going to your friend’s desk or going to a conference room we just go in Zoom, just like you and I are doing right now, and talking about what we want to achieve.
You said Lion King was one of your favourite films. What are your other top movies?
‘Lion King’ is a big one for me. I remember my cousin taking me to watch it… I remember ‘Circle of Life’. You know, when Zazu is flying over Pride Rock and you see the title of the movie. I thought the movie was done. I’m like ‘I’m done, I can go home now’. I love ‘Zootopia’. I love ‘Big Hero 6’. I love ‘Inside Out’. I’m just a big fan of animation.
I want to touch upon the fact that this the first Disney film with a South East Asian lead character. As a person of colour yourself did that mean something to you?
Of course! I kept seeing the inspiration [behind] this movie. I was really impressed — to the last detail — how much inspiration we were pulling from South East Asian countries. I’m going to give you an example; like even to the last button of Raya’s clothes, her weapon, the martial arts they use. We had a lot of martial art classes… even texture and the sets. It’s so fun. It’s so fun to just create. It’s like you have like pieces of Legos and you’re just finding inspiration and building a world from scratch.
If you could create a dream project for yourself, what would you work on?
[Laughs] I don’t know. Obviously, I would tell a story that’s close to me. That’s the easiest, to write what you know. I like space, the sea, the mountains. I like Pirates. I’m always a fan of trust and bringing people together. If only we can all come in together and make a better world. I’m a big fan of that. I’m also a big fan of family and passing [down] lessons between parents, between neighbours and friends. I like stuff like that.
Did you draw from your Arab identity or from your past experiences while being part of this film?
Yeah, I did. I love that question because I do identify a lot with this movie even though I’m Middle Eastern and this is South East Asian. But I think the message still stands in what you can do if people just come together and trust each other… the beautiful things we can do. I’m happy I was part of this project.
If you could give some advice to a young person who wants to pursue animation, what would that advice be?
Never give up. Do what you love. I get a lot of emails. A lot of them are young Arab animators and artists who email me and they ask me ‘what do I do?’ [I say] just do the thing… just do three hours a day, four hours a day and just get good. Especially nowadays where everything is accessible online, you can go you can find inspiration — just do the thing. Don’t stop doing what you love.
Don’t miss it!
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is out now in the UAE.