First it was Crazy Rich Asians, a Hollywood movie featuring an Asian American cast steeped in Chinese culture and filmed in Southeast Asia’s city-state, Singapore. Now, Disney, the content leader of everyone’s formative childhood, has provided a follow-up with Raya and the Last Dragon, the first Disney animated film about Southeast Asia, led by a Southeast Asian actress.
Yes, that’s a lot of first that comes with several caveats, in that Mulan was the first Disney animated film with an Asian lead, but while Mulan was voiced by Chinese American actress Ming Na-Wen, of Star Wars and Marvel Comics fame, Raya is played by fellow Star Wars alum and Vietnamese American actress, Kelly Marie Tran.
Speaking at a press conference that Geek Culture attended, Tran recognised the significance of her casting, and shared how having female heroes that look like you is empowering for young children.
“It’s a big deal. I grew up with the sort of narrow perception of what a hero looks like, or what a hero spoke like, and be part of something that’s sort of changing that feels really powerful. And I’m really, really proud of it,” said the actress, who played Rose Tico in the last two Star Wars movies.
And following in the footsteps of Disney’s Frozen, Raya is no ordinary girl. Like the newer iterations of Disney princesses, she is independent and doesn’t shy away from taking the necessary adventures, no matter how dangerous it might be. She isn’t focused on finding a love interest and is instead of needing to be saved, she’s busy saving others from a terrible fate.
Set in Southeast Asia, the producers traveled to the region and studied the culture and used it as a backdrop of the film, which has audiences travel to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. When an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, it’s up to the lone warrior princess Raya to track down the last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.
Featuring an all-Asian main cast, including Crazy Rich Asian’s Awkwafina, Southeast Asian actresses Kelly Marie Tran and Thalia Tran and actor Izaac Wang never would have thought they’d see a Disney movie filled with characters that look like them and their loved ones.
“I think it’s really, really special to have characters who look like us who we can look up to. We can see our faces reflected on the screens, hear our voices reflected on the screens and know that our stories matter. To have people who are willing to spend time to create this art around our cultures and know that we don’t have to be ashamed of them, we don’t have to hide that part of ourselves, that we don’t have to just conform to what is considered the typical idea of a princess or what is considered the idea of a hero that we can just be true to ourselves and still fit that category… I think that’s really special,” said Thalia Tran who voiced Little Noi in the movie.
“The second I saw a little Noi, it definitely reminded me of my little sister who is the most lovable human being, I’m super blessed to have her as my little sister. I’m excited to show her to my friends because I think that it’s really special to have a character where they can be like, ‘Oh my gosh, that reminds me of my little brother or my little cousin’, or ‘That totally reminds me of me as a baby’, so I think that’s really cool,” Tran explained.
For East Asian cast members Awkwafina and Daniel Dae Kim, the ability to be part of a film that is meant to empower the Asian identity and community as a whole has only cemented the need for diversity and representation.
“For children, in particular, the universe that Disney creates is one that many of them see as a totality of the world while they’re children,” added Kim who plays Raya’s father, Chief Benja. “When you think of Disney movies, they help define our childhood and so now to know that Southeast Asia and Asia, in general, will now be a part of those kids’ experiences, it does huge things for issues of representation and role modelling. The future now becomes inclusive of that group. And I think that’s so important.”
Raya and the Last Dragon features the first Southeast Asian Disney princess after over 80 years of filmmaking. This is just one of Disney’s efforts to diversify and include varying experiences in their storytelling. People of Colour have often been forgotten in media and Disney’s 1992 Aladdin, 1995 Pocahontas and 1998 Mulan, as well as later films like 2009 Princess and the Frog and 2016 Moana (whilst not immune to controversies and critics), have in some way pushed for more diversity on screen and representation in media. Not just on-screen, but behind the scenes too.
Whilst it seems like a simple task, it isn’t practiced. The world of Hollywood is famously known to have a representation problem and actress Awkwafina who voices Sisu notes that diversity and representation are two varied terms. Where diversity can be achieved by having an Asian character in a film, representation is when authentic stories are being told.
“Representation is when your character is not one dimensional. I’ve experienced a lot of these (one dimensional) roles or auditioned for roles like that. With movies like obviously, Crazy Rich Asians, it started to evolve a little bit,” expressed Awkwafina.
“When I consider successes – both of Asians in front and obviously behind – I think of the way we develop these stories, the way we help develop these characters and essentially reach all kinds of levels of representation is when we’re telling authentic stories that are authentically written. When you have those voices behind the camera, they help paint the story just as much as the people in front of the camera.”
And that’s exactly what Disney has done.
Writing and making Raya and the Last Dragon was a team of Asian creatives. Co-writers Adele Lim, the Malaysian writer best known for penning Crazy Rich Asians and American-Vietnamese Qui Nguyen shared their motivations and experiences in making Raya and the Last Dragon with the latter strongly wanting his children to grow up having someone to look up to.
“The thing about making a Disney movie – just by the element of how big we are – it’s going to affect and change pop culture as soon as it drops and because of that children, your kids, get to see it, it becomes a positive [reinforcement]. To see, not just our movie but seeing a whole world celebrate Southeast Asian architecture, the people, the culture, it’s something that will empower kids to be able to go “Oh, that is something from my history and my culture that I can be proud of”,” said Nguyen.
“I asked my kid about Asian heroes, they don’t have any heroes. I literally asked, ‘Who’s your favourite Asian hero that looks like you and me?’ and they had none, and now in this moment in time, they will always have Raya, Sisu, Namaari, Boun, Noi, Tong, Benja – these characters will always be part of their emotional and self-esteem fabric that will shape them forever.”
For Lim, her experience writing Raya and the Last Dragon has been an eye-opener to seeing Disney’s attempt at making a change.
“Working at Disney was new for me. I had never done feature animation before and on day one, when I parked in that Disney structure and got into the elevator to go up to the office, I went in and there were a bunch of young Asian women who are the story artists, who got into the elevator with me. And I was like, “This never happened ever, in any of my meetings at any of my jobs”, so you know, really, it wasn’t just a team assembled for this project,” shared Lim.
With Raya and the Last Dragon being heavily influenced and inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, a lot of research had to be done. The architects behind the movie had to do more than hire Asian talents to work on and off camera. In fact, the team travelled to the region and even formed a Southeast Asia Story Trust that helped inch the team towards the right direction and show them the way to portraying Southeast Asian cultures respectfully.
“We were lucky enough to have our teams go to the region on researched trips. We’re talking about a very diverse region with a lot of countries, with a lot of traditions, with a lot of cultures and so just choosing where to go had a lot to do with the stories we wanted to tell with amazing people we met who hosted us in different places,” said producer Osnat Shurer.
“We were lucky enough to go to quite a few places and then to keep those relationships going as we went into the film. Part of what struck us so much and part of why we wanted to ground the film in Southeast Asia was the incredible diversity that we encountered. And yet there’s this working together, this ability to set aside the differences within each country and within the whole region, and work together for the greater good. This is the theme of our film so it was this perfect marriage and from there on in it was to help find the balance of the inspiration versus the fantasy of our brand new original world,” continued Shurer.
Reminiscing one of the trips, film director Carlos López Estrada shared that he was inspired by the sunset over the Mekong river. He was moved by the views and tried to recreate the same colours in the movie. In addition, the director ensured that the beautiful sound of cicadas outside the temple was also the very first sound the audience would hear to reimagine the experience they had at one of the temples they visited on their trip.
“It all came from the experience. It’s really in the design, the character design, the storyboarding. I think this trip just became sort of like the emotional fabric that everyone was building around all of our artists who got to go were just transformed by it,”said Estrada.
Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, while it aims to bring Southeast Asian cultures into the world of Hollywood, the Asian team behind the movie push that this shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence.
To continuously ensure that Southeast Asian, and other minority groups get to see their people on screens as they grow up, Awkwafina pushes the need to hire more Asian creatives in Hollywood: “I would encourage there to be more writers, directors, people that are kind of setting the stage as well as on as on camera talent.”
As people around the world, including Southeast Asian children, gear up for the debut of Disney’s first-ever Southeast Asian princess, Raya and the Last Dragon is on its way to empowering more childhoods and hopefully spark something in the younger kids of this generation.