Raya and the Last Dragon Introduces Disney’s First Southeast Asian Princess
The call for more representation in the media has increasingly gained attention over the past few years, with numerous speeches, studies, articles, and Twitter threads stressing the critical importance of on-screen diversity. The arrival of Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest animated movie, brings cause for celebration among many in Asian and Asian-American communities.
The film is one for the books as Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess voiced by Vietnamese American Kelly Marie Tran and a landmark moment for Southeast Asian representation in Hollywood. Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fictional fantasy land of Kumandra, inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia as the action-packed story follows the quest of the eponymous heroine as she searches for the fabled dragon Sisu to restore peace in their broken world.
The film was released on March 5th and is now available on Disney+ with Premier Access and select theaters with a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes as of now. The film also supported Asian American representation behind the screen with the film co-written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter Qui Nguyen and Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim, the latter best known for co-writing Crazy Rich Asians. Fawn Veerasunthorn, who is Thai-American, led the artistic direction as Head of Story.
To research the film, production team members traveled to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore to learn about their cultures firsthand.
The studio also formed the Southeast Asia Story Trust, similar to its Oceanic Trust for Moana. Led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, the Trust is a group of consultants with expertise ranging from music and choreography to architecture and martial arts. They strived to make the film’s details more authentic to Southeast Asia, which was also front of mind for co-writers Nguyen and Lim.
When co-writer Nguyen recalls his joy producing the film and excitement when Raya makes an offering with bánh tét, he says, “It was fun to have Fawn [Head of Story], myself, Adele, members in our animation, story teams, to arm wrestle a little bit about what things we can celebrate in our cultures. And it would be small details, like what food would be on the banquet. We were all pitching different dishes, and when you could get one little dish in there that was super recognizable, it meant so much.”
However, the steps forward to representation in Hollywood are rarely clear-cut. While many shared their excitement around seeing their cultures represented onscreen, others expressed concern, most notably about the lack of Southeast Asian actors in the cast as well as the approach of combining influences from Southeast Asian countries as a whole into one story.
Southeast Asia is a region that is home to 11 countries and 673 million people. Many argue that Southeast Asia is portrayed as treating the entire area rich with culture as a single monolith. The catch-all approach to a whole geographic region creates the risk of unriching distinct cultures and adds to the assumption that “all Asians are the same” while, in truth, the Asian-American experience is deeply varied.
While the film features a couple of other Southeast Asian voice actors aside from Tran, including Thalia Tran as Noi and Izaac Wang as Boun, the majority of the top-billed actors are East Asian such as Awkwafina as Sisu, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, and Benedict Wong. Today’s stories with nuanced portrayals of Southeast Asian characters or Southeast Asia have been few and far between in the film world and media. In the past few years, the Asian-American films that have received critical acclaims—such as Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians—have primarily focused on East Asian experiences or have featured a predominantly East Asian cast (While Crazy Rich Asians are set in Singapore, the film mostly follows ethnic Chinese characters.) “Right now, there’s a lot of Crazy Rich Asians, Bling Empire, House of Ho,” Asian CineVision’s Katie Do states, “I think it heightens the model minority myth.” This partial representation of the Asian and Asian American community supports the standard narrative underlining ostentatious wealth and ignores the genuine reality of the other millions of Asian Americans.
American Studies and English professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Asian Pacific American Studies minor Sylvia Shun Huey Chong claims, “It’s not East Asians excluding Southeast Asians but East Asians and Southeast Asians being put into a zero-sum game, where they have to compete for a limited amount of attention from people who finance and produce films.” She continues to suggest that “there is some East Asian privilege” when it comes to the Asian American and Asian stories that are told. “I don’t know that The Farewell could have been made without Crazy Rich Asians,” Chong says, “There hasn’t been that same Vietnamese-American film or the same Filipino-American film.”
While many Asian and Asian American communities have commented on missed opportunities, many are celebrating the win in simply being seen in the film industry. “In order for there to be the movement forward towards a day where we have equitable representation that tells our stories in all of [their] amazing glory, we need to look at these subjects with nuance and go, ‘Hey, we’re very excited that this is out, but this is where things can do better so that for the next project, we’re coming into it with a blueprint,” says Carolina Đỗ, New York-based author and actress. This celebration comes with the expectation that representation does not end with this one. “I love ‘firsts’ for our community,” Gold House’s Bing Chen says, “because we need firsts to get to ‘nexts.’”