The Disney Princess franchise is getting a new member on-board, and while she retains that strong personality, fighting spirit and gentle beauty of her compatriots, this new feisty warrior is of Southeast Asian descent and also a person of colour, played by Star Wars alum Kelly Marie Tran.
After making her big break in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as Rose Tico, Tran is no stranger to big Disney movies and franchises but this role holds a special place in her heart, as the majority of the cast, playing the various supporting characters in Disney’s latest animated film, are also Asian.
“I grew up in this generation where I wasn’t really seeing representations of myself in the media or in books or anywhere. To have a movie like this where you’re not just getting Raya, but you’re getting Namaari, and you’re getting Sisu and you’re getting Boun, and Noi and Tong and a wealth of characters – recognizing that, knowing that there is a valid experience there…that is so important to me,” said the Vietnamese-American actress in an exclusive interview with Geek Culture.
“It’s a big deal to be a part of this movie that’s sort of changing the narrative in terms of who gets to be a hero who gets to be a princess.”
Tran’s Raya is a Southeast Asian warrior princess who is not just witty, smart and adventurous, she’s also one of Disney’s big attempts to broaden their Disney Princess franchise to include diverse experiences and stories into the company’s 80 years long reign in children entertainment.
Highly influenced by Southeast Asia and extremely empowering for children of Southeast Asian backgrounds, Raya and the Last Dragon has the titular character find and team-up with an ancient dragon, Sisu, played by Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina, on an action-packed adventure that focuses on the heartwarming lessons of friendship and trust. While the film takes place in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived in harmony, audiences should know that all the cultures and people depicted in the movie have an Asian link. Heck, even the dragons are the Asian type, long and eel-like, rather than the fire-breathing ones with wings ala Game of Thrones.
Raya and the Last Dragon is the first Disney film to explore Southeast Asia and features cultures, locations and characters with faces that mirror the people who live in the region. For many children of colour, seeing characters like themselves playing lead roles is a rarity. Even though Disney had a head start in diversifying their Disney Princess franchise in the 90s with the addition of Princess Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas, their characters were deemed rather one-dimensional, and the movies placed very little emphasis on the cultures that inspired the princesses.
With movies like Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon, communities whose stories often go untold are now the driving force and inspiration behind the beautiful storytelling, magical world building and stunning animation that Disney is well known for. In Raya and the Last Dragon particularly, these influences are drawn out via the food and various cultural elements that are unique to the region, making the movie look and feel authentic.
“There’s also other parts of the movie too that are so specific to Southeast Asia – the food, the clothing, with all the five different clans, like, I just love how specific everybody was about the different shapes people were wearing, the different colors, the patterns, everything was so meticulously studied and I think that you can see that,” shared Tran.
“For me. It’s sort of that melding of all of those different things – and when you’re watching it, it just feels so authentic to that region of the world. It’s really special.”
Stepping into this role and being a part of a movie that empowers the Asian community is a big deal for Tran who has had terrible experiences with racism and misogyny during her stint with the last two Star Wars movies she was in. After receiving numerous negative comments on the way she looks, the actress was driven off social media and spent some time rebuilding herself in therapy.
Ever since then, the actress has been very vocal about the issues of race and actively stood by co-star Boyega who was also a victim of racism. For Asian Americans in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic, which some have mistakenly attributed to people of Asian ethnicities, has led to increased violence towards the Asian American community with hate crimes spiking up to over 150% in major cities, some of which have been fatal.
Raya and the Last Dragon, according to Tran, is a timely piece that will hopefully uplift the community during this difficult time: “ I think that this movie is coming out at a very specific time for the Asian community because there is so much heartbreak and there is so much hurt over these horrible things and to be part of something during this time… this moment in time where we can sort of celebrate who we are and be proud of that is a really big deal to me.”
Politicking aside, Tran’s affinity to Raya is largely based on her own relationship with her family and the similarities she shares with the warrior princess.
In the movie, Raya is seen having a close relationship with her father Chief Benja. Benja trains her to be the Guardian of the Dragon Gem, the very last piece of dragon existence ever since their sacrifice 500 years ago. When things go awry and the monsters return to ruin Kumandra once and for all, Raya is left with the heavy responsibility of restoring her homeland and uniting its divided people as her father wanted. This situation of meeting expectations and receiving pressures to uphold honour is all too familiar for the actress.
“I think something that I really, really related to is the relationship between Benja and Raya. I don’t want to generalise Southeast Asians so I’ll just talk about my parents, but that sort of relationship of feeling like there is honour to be upheld, there is a very specific way in which Benja sort of teaches Raya about the world and there’s, I don’t want to say pressure, I don’t think it’s pressure, but there’s this sort of expectation – I really, really relate to that,” shared Tran.
Even though Raya and the Last Dragon features the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, Tran presses that Raya is a character that is for all audiences regardless of their racial identity.
Like how other princesses in the Disney franchise like Ariel and Cinderella for example have universal appeal to viewers, Raya should be regarded on the same level too. This is especially since the lessons that Raya learns throughout the movie are lessons with universal applicability and relatability.
“She’s a very relatable character. She’s someone who saw the world in a very specific way, then this horrible thing happens and then she sort of changes the way that she perceives the world. It becomes this place of distrust, it becomes a place of danger and then she learns how to find the good in the world again. I think that, for me, is really relatable to just anyone’s human experience,” said Tran.