Disney’s release of Raya and the Last Dragon ignited a wave of excitement among Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander communities. The film has been described as a “landmark moment’” for Asian representation – the first Southeast Asian princess to appear in an animated feature and voiced by the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a Disney animated feature.
The story’s heroine is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who faced her own wave of racism appearing in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. After xenophobic attacks forced her off from social media, Tran spoke out against Asian marginalization and became an advocate for representation. Though she is cognizant of the lack of representation in Hollywood films for people that may look like her, Tran hopes Raya will give the Asian community something to celebrate and that it will be the start of a movement that encourages more Asian-led stories in the industry.
In fact, this movement may be closer than we think. Some believe we are in an important moment of representation in movies in general, considering the milestones already being made in this year’s Oscar nominations. For the first time in Academy Awards' history, more than one female director has been nominated in the best director category. Directors Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) and Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Woman) were both nominated in the best director category for the 93rd Academy Awards, with Zhao also becoming the first Chinese woman to be nominated. Minari filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, who picked up an additional nod for original screenplay, became the second Asian-American nominated for best director. Additionally, Korean-born Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American nominee, with Minari co-star Youn Yuh-jung receiving her first nomination for best supporting actress. It’s evident that a new age of Hollywood is on the horizon.
Raya and the Last Dragon offers a meticulous lens into the world of Southeast Asian heritage. The story is set in the fantastical world of Kumandra, which Disney creators said was inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, including the countries Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. The vibrant colors, sweeping landscapes, illustrious architecture, savory foods, and detailed costumes and weapons are just a few of several meaningful examples brought to life. To screenwriter Adele Lim, who is of Malaysian descent, writing Raya’s world came naturally. More importantly, she was not the only Asian-American in the writer’s room.
“I can’t tell you the number of amazingly talented artists we had on this movie. They could put their hearts and souls and their history into the film,” Lim commended. “To be a part of this where the place where I grew up was going to be the central inspiration and to have a Disney heroine, a warrior princess so that my daughter can look at and see her face reflected, means the world to me.”
Raya features a predominantly Asian cast that includes Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, and Benedict Wong. Yet, the animated feature picked up a bit of controversy when some complained that the majority of the voice cast are of Chinese and Korean descent, instead of Southeast Asian descent. Despite this, many are focusing on the representation within the creative team who are indeed Southeast Asian, like writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. Though Korean-American actor Daniel Dae Kim cannot speak to Southeast Asian culture, he reminds us that Asian families around the world will be able to see multidimensional Asian characters on screen, encouraging the possibilities and promoting the dreams that lie ahead.
“We also can’t undervalue the power of the fact that this is a Disney movie and the people that will be watching this movie will, by and large, be families who are seeing this kind of representation and understanding what is possible,” Kim emphasizes.
At its core, Raya and the Last Dragon is a celebration of Southeast Asian culture that contributes to the larger conversation of Asian representation in film. In this case, representation illustrates the stories that are given power in the world, honoring the past while pushing for a more diverse future in storytelling. Of course, it’s not Hollywood alone where Asian representation matters. Actress Gemma Chan’s father grew up in Hong Kong, while her mother’s family emigrated from China to Scotland. Proud of her Chinese descent, Chan is vocal about the very cross-community exchanges that help build a bridge of understanding between the East and the West.
“There are people that have been helping, and I wanna shout out all of the grassroots organizations and individuals that have been doing the hard work on the ground for a long time and that maybe are not getting the airtime or the attention that they should. Now, it feels like there is this moment to spotlight their work because they’re already building these cross-community alliances that we need,” Chan applauds.
The overarching themes in Raya and the Last Dragon offer messages of trust, forgiveness, and healing. At a time when anti-Asian crimes are on the rise and the world feels divided, Raya shows us that the plague of human discord will be defeated once we come together in mutual understanding and trust to fight this hate.