‘Raya and the Last Dragon’: Behind Disney’s first animated adventure with a Southeast Asian heroine

Since Jasmine arrived in 1992’s Aladdin, marking Disney’s first multicultural princess in what had been a canon of all-white princesses dating back 55 years, the studio has made greats strides to diversify its onscreen heroines. Four of the six princesses who followed were characters of color: Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana (The Princess and the Frog) and Moana — respectively Disney’s first Native American, East Asian, African American and Polynesian royal representatives. (Jasmine and Mulan also received live-action treatments in 2019’s Aladdin and 2020’s Mulan).

March’s animated adventure Raya and the Last Dragon will mark another boundary buster for the Mouse House, introducing Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars) stars as the titular heroine, a lone warrior who teams with, well, the land’s last dragon (Awkwafina’s Sisu) and a band of outcasts to save the divided world of Kumandra from monsters known as Druun. (While the term “princess” grows increasingly antiquated — Raya, like Moana before her, quite literally is one, being the daughter of Daniel Dae Kim’s Chief Benja.)

Raya and the Last Dragon (Photo: Disney)

As Raya producer Osnat Shurer (Moana) tells Yahoo Entertainment, though, Disney’s decision to set its latest animation tentpole in Southeast Asia (the subregion once known as Indochina comprising countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia and Singapore) was not a matter of strategically zoning in on a corner of the globe hitherto unexplored by the studio.

“It tends to be a little more organic than that,” Shurer says. “There aren’t any sort of directives [that say], ‘Go here’ or ‘Go there.’ It’s more us as filmmakers sitting in a room and talking about the story and then starting to do research.”

'Raya and the Last Dragon' (© 2021 Disney)

Raya and the Last Dragon (Photo: Disney)

Raya started with the filmmakers exploring a dragon tale, which synchronized with an idea kicking around the studio about the fictional land of Kumandra (a region composed of five separate kingdoms that together form the shape of a dragon) and aspirations to originate a new strong female warrior. It quickly became clear that the project would zero in on an Asian dragon versus a European one.

And, in what’s becoming a tradition for Shurer, who organized an early-2010s trek to Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti for Moana, the producer led the creative team on a pre-COVID “cultural immersion” expedition to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, where they spoke to people of varying backgrounds — including an anthropologist, linguist, choreographer and a Gamelan musician. “The region is vast,” Shurer says. “It’s got many countries, it’s got many, many cultures. Yet there’s this inclusive sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ that you get when you meet people all over Southeast Asia. … But we found that there was so much beauty, so much color, so many principles they shared across the whole region that would inspire an incredible fantastical world. There’s also a history of powerful women. There’s all these things that fed together organically into the fantasy story we wanted to tell.”

'Raya and the Last Dragon' (© 2021 Disney)

Raya and the Last Dragon (Photo: Disney)

Shortly after the trip, Shurer brought on Adele Lim, the Malaysian-born co-writer of the 2018 smash Crazy Rich Asians. “Osnat said at that point, ‘We have a young female kick-ass warrior and we have a dragon, and I was like, ‘I am in! Done!,’” Lim laughs. The screenwriter says she was “beyond blown away” by the team’s expedition. “I grew up in Malaysia, and the idea that we’re going to use our culture as inspiration for this was fantastic,” she says. “In Southeast Asia, there’s an amazing tradition of female leaders and female warriors and I wanted Raya to embody that spirit.”

After Lim came aboard, her co-writer, Qui Nguyen (Incorporated, Dispatches From Elsewhere), and directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Moana) and Carlos López-Estrada (the indie breakout Blindspotting) joined the project.

López-Estrada likens the diversity of Southeast Asia to the five clans of Kumandra (Fang Land, Heart Land, Spine Land, Tail Land and Talon Land), whose warring brings about the kingdom’s demise from which Raya must save it. “The initial seeds that inspired us were to show and celebrate the culture in Southeast Asia, and also to explore the great diversity that exists within them. The story was always very connected to that because the story talks about this fantasy land Kumandra that has different lands that similarly have like very different traditions, very different cultures, very different identities, and how they work towards trusting each other, working together and becoming the sort of harmonious group of people that they once were. And I think that that just spoke to us so directly because of the place where we are right now as a country and the place where we are right now globally, and the desperate need for some unity.”

The project struck an especially personal chord for the veteran TV writer and playwright Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American.

“Everyone’s [talking about Raya being] Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, but for me it’s such a big deal for her to be my kids’ new favorite superhero,” he said in a press conference for Raya. “It’s something that I didn’t get to see growing up, that really represented me, our voice, our culture, and to be able to have that for our children, that’s a blessing that will last way beyond my time here on Earth. So it’s an amazing moment to be a part of this.”

'Raya and the Last Dragon' (© 2021 Disney)

Raya and the Last Dragon (Photo: Disney)

In an industry still learning to be more inclusive, Raya represents new terrain for the likes of Nguyen and Lim.

“I’ve been writing in Hollywood for about 20 years right now, 17 years of which I had never been able to write for a lead character that looked at all like me,” says Lim, who began her career as a script coordinator on Xena: Warrior Princess. “So with this, even though Kumandra is a fantasy world and Raya is a fantasy character, having that world be inspired from the same world that I grew up in is tremendous. When you grow up in a place like Southeast Asia, we feel very proud of like our traditions, our food, our history, but we feel like the world really doesn’t have any idea about us or can’t really see us. And so to have a Disney animated film really put it front and center as its inspiration is tremendous.”

Though as Lim points out, Raya and the Last Dragon is not about representation.

“With all of us, nobody ever sets out to tell a wonderful, great sweeping epic and leads with, ‘This is about representation.’ It’s not. It’s really just in the bones of the movie.”

Raya and the Last Dragon opens March 5 in theaters and on Disney+.

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