Disney Animation’s upcoming film Raya and the Last Dragon is the first animated film to be inspired by Southeast Asian cultures. Indeed, the film is said to include cultural influences from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Today, Entertainment Weekly provided a first look image, spoke with the creatives behind the film and revealed that Star Wars alumna Kelly Marie Tran has been cast to replace previously announced Cassie Steele in the lead role as Raya.
Raya and the Last Dragon was announced last August at Disney’s D23 Expo. I had the fortune of being in attendance at the presentation (for those who have been to the Disney Studios presentation at D23 Expo, you know it’s an accomplishment in and of itself to get into the room!), where fans were given the opportunity to see a few minutes of the film. In the scene, Raya seeks out the dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) in a mysterious cave and meets her for the first time. It was a really beautifully rendered scene and it was fun to see that Sisu bears a strong resemblance to her voice actor!
According to Entertainment Weekly, Raya and the Last Dragon is about a warrior princess who, along with her steed Tuk Tuk (described by director Don Hall “as an insect version of an armadillo”), goes in search of Sisu the last dragon to help defeat a villain named Druun. In addition to Tran and Awkwafina, EW teased that there is a third female protagonist yet to be revealed.
Films that borrow heavily from Asian cultures are nothing new. All too often, those projects use Asian aesthetics but fail to involve Asian creatives. Further, “Asian” typically refers to East Asian cultures, leaving out Southeast Asia. It’s no wonder that many Southeast Asians refer to themselves as the “Invisible Asians.” Thankfully, the creators behind Raya made sure that this film would not fall into that trope. Not only is Kelly Marie Tran set to become Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, but the filmmakers took the extra steps necessary to ensure that the film would accurately and appropriately reflect its Southeast Asian inspirations.
According to EW, Producer Osnat Shurer explained that, Disney “sent creative teams on research trips to multiple countries in Southeast Asia and worked with a Southeast Asia Story Trust. They also collaborated with a visual anthropologist who looks at every design before it’s finalized, as well as linguists, dancers, and Gamelan musicians from Indonesia.” This sounds exactly like the kind of groundwork that every studio needs to do before developing an Asian inspired film. In particular, I love the idea of a “Southeast Asian Story Trust” and would love to know more about who was involved and what their contributions were. It certainly feels like the research went beyond simply having one Asian consultant give notes, and that’s an important step in proper representation in media.
In addition to Tran, Awkwafina and the Southeast Asia Story Trust, Adele Lim, who co-wrote Crazy Rich Asians, and playwright Qui Nguyen are co-writing the script. Nguyen clearly understands the value of representation:
“When you’re telling a story and you’re just doing it based on research, you end up always having to do it from the high end,” he says. “To have the artists who represent those cultures in there to be able to give the subtleties of what our families are actually like, what our relationships are actually like, has given a lot of nuances to this great adventure.”Qui Nguyen to Entertainment Weekly
For Tran’s part as Raya, the character is much more than a cliched princess, which makes sense given her role as resistance fighter Rose Tico in Star Wars. Rose was a gritty and passionate fighter against evil in The Last Jedi and it sounds like Tran will be taking some of those characteristics with her to Raya. Tran emphasized that Raya is a warrior who embraced the sword at an early age and doesn’t need any saving.
“She is someone who is technically a princess but I think that what’s really cool about this project, about this character, specifically is that everyone’s trying to flip the narrative on what it means to be a princess,” Tran says. “Raya is totally a warrior. When she was a kid, she was excited to get her sword. And she grows up to be a really badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself.”Kelly Marie Tran to Entertainment Weekly
In a separate piece, EW spoke with Tran about the project, and it’s apparent how much this role and film mean to her. “I just cried and laughed through the whole thing,” Tran told EW. “I didn’t know that I was yearning just to see someone who looks like me.”
Trans ascendence as a Disney warrior princess is an exciting development. As Rose Tico, Tran was famously the first major Asian-American character to star in a Star Wars film, and although her character was celebrated by many, it’s no secret that Tran endured harassment by a certain segment of Star Wars fandom. Transitioning from that experience to leading a Disney film centering Southeast Asians is the kind of success she not only deserves based on her talent, but that her fans will undoubtedly be thrilled to see.
It’s long past time for a film like this. Raya features multiple women of color leads, Asian writers and a story that highlights typically overlooked Southeast Asian cultures. Further, based on the footage I saw at D23 Expo, it’s an absolutely beautiful film. I couldn’t be more excited.
The plot summary for Raya is as follows:
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the last dragon in order to finally stop the Druun for good. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than dragon magic to save the world—it’s going to take trust as well. From directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, producers Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon opens in U.S. theaters on March 12, 2021.
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.