We don't know about you, but back when we were kids, it was an absolute dream to have a Disney Princess that looked like us. Back then, Mulan and Jasmine were the closest we had. They were the Asian heroes in our hearts, and while her story did resonate with us, it still couldn't quite fully encompass the rich stories of our diverse Asian cultures. Thankfully, decades after that, Disney has finally decided to work on a story that's closer to our home. Coming soon is Raya and the Last Dragon, the animation giant's first-ever feature inspired by Southeast Asian cultures.
A grand adventure
Just Announced: Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon, starring @cassandrasteele (Raya) and @Awkwafina (Sisu, the Last Dragon). Check out all-new concept art, and see the film in theaters November 2020. #D23Expo pic.twitter.com/V40bv64IIp— Walt Disney Studios (@DisneyStudios) August 24, 2019
Combining different elements and references from different Southeast Asian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon will be set in a fictional land called Kumandra, comprised of five distinct clans. Here, our heroine Raya lives as a daughter of a powerful chief — but she's unlike the stereotypical, gentle princess we've come to know. She's a badass warrior capable of fighting for herself. And so, when the evil force of the villainous Druun threatens the peace of their land, Raya steps up. With her sidekick, Tuk Tuk, a bear-slash-armadillo, she leaves home in search of the last dragon to save them all.
Lead by a diverse female cast
When Disney first gave us a sneak peek of the project at D23 Expo in August last year, it was revealed that Filipino-Canadian actress Cassie Steele will be voicing Raya. But just last week, it was announced that Kelly Marie Tran would be taking over the role. The Vietnamese American actress, known for her role as Rose Tico in the most recent Star Wars trilogy, will be the first-ever actress of Southeast Asian descent to lead a Walt Disney animated feature.
To lead Raya and the Last Dragon along with Kelly is Awkwafina. She'll star as Sisu, a water dragon able to assume a human form, who needs help to reclaim her power before she can save them all.
A focus on representation
It's laudable that in recent years, Disney has been more than willing to expand their horizons and create stories that speak to their audiences all over the world. To ensure that they're doing justice to the cultures that inspired them in the making of this film, they're doubling down on their research efforts.
For one, they've set up a Southeast Asia Story Trust to help guide them in the production. The studio has also sent members of their creative teams to various Southeast Asian countries, including Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and more, to make their creations closer to reality. A Lao visual anthropologist is also there to provide input to their designs before they're finalised. Finally, linguists, cultural dancers, and gamelan musicians from Indonesia were also tapped to lend a hand in the production.
It's unfortunate that, due to the pandemic, Raya and the Last Dragon's initial release on 25 November this year was bumped to 12 March 2021. Still, seeing the effort Disney is putting into this feature to make it as faithful as possible to our local cultures, definitely gives us high hopes for the project. With a diverse cast and crew working on the film, fingers crossed, they'd be able to portray the subtleties and nuances that truly reflect our experiences.
Whether or not Disney decides to expand their official princesses lineup with Raya, the creation of this film still helps us preserve and treasure our heritage. Just featuring strong women whose stories resonate with us already means a lot for a new generation of Southeast Asian girls needing inspiring role models to look up to.
(Cover photo from: @disneyraya)