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“Awkwafina’s Very Expressive”: How the Actress Inspired Sisu in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

Disney animators are known for taking inspiration from the actors who voice the characters being animated (with one notable example being the distinct mannerisms that were copied from actress Eartha Kitt and used for her Emperor’s New Groove character Yzma), and that pattern apparently continued behind the scenes on the animated Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon from 2021! Awkwafina, the rapper and actress who voiced dragon Sisu in the Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, was a big inspiration for the animators who created her dragon.

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Awkwafina, who plays Sisu in the Walt Disney Animation Studios movie ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: cinema.everyeye.it

“Awkwafina’s very expressive,” head of animation Amy Speed told Hollywood Reporter. “She’ll talk with smaller mouth shapes and then she’ll go into a broad smile very quickly. And we were trying to get that into Sisu both as dragon and human, which just elevates that charm of her personality.”

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Sisu in human form Credit: Pinterest

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Sisu in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie that focuses heavily on Southeast Asian culture and Southeast Asian characters. Credit: kakuchopurei.com

Fans of Awkwafina who have watched the actress in live-action films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Ocean’s Eight (2018), and the 2021 Marvel movie Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings can definitely see some resemblances between the actress’s real-life mannerisms and the mannerisms of her Disney character Sisu — including when Sisu transforms into a human temporarily! “One of the fun things for us was, when she transforms into a human, she’s a little bit awkward at first”, Amy Speed added.

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Awkwafina, who plays Sisu in the Walt Disney Animation Studios movie ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: IMDB.com

The enthusiasm and awkwardness of Sisu are endearing traits that may have been inspired by Awkwafina, but the animators behind Raya and the Last Dragon also took inspiration from the Southeast Asian research trip that the filmmakers experienced, as well as the Naga of Southeast Asia (which are “beings that can manifest as serpents or humans”).

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Sisu is a magical, mythical, self-deprecating dragon in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’. Credit: hollywoodreporter.com

It might seem obvious in retrospect, but Sisu’s blue color was also chosen to represent her status as a water dragon and (using her own words) “a really strong swimmer”. The sinuous nature of Sisu’s movements also works well with her affinity for water; even though Amy Speed said in the Hollywood Reporter interview that “we didn’t want to oversimplify her anatomy, making sure that that structure is still in there”, there are also “a lot of S-shapes with her body”.

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Namaari, played by Gemma Chan, in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: IMDB.com

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Gemma Chan at the Eternals L.A. Premiere. Credit: Marvel Studios Twitter

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Kelly Marie Tran Credit: Pinterest

Raya and the Last Dragon also stars Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Gemma Chan as Namaari. Was Sisu your favorite character in Raya and the Last Dragon?

About Sharon

Sharon is a writer and animal lover from New England. Sharon's two main focuses in her work are Disney's correlations with pop culture and the significance of Disney princesses (which was the basis for her college thesis). When she's not writing about Disney, Sharon spends her time singing, dancing, and cavorting with woodland creatures!