The latest film from Walt Disney Animation aims to introduce Southeast Asian cultures and traditions to a large audience. In “Raya and the Last Dragon” we see a strong young girl who goes on an epic journey to find the last dragon and unite her world.
The film stars Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) as Raya. She says she was moved by the message in the film.
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“When I was first introduced to Raya, the first thing that struck me was the theme of the movie,” Tran said. “And realizing that trust and unity, especially when the world seems so divided, is so important.”
Another important element in Raya is the representation of Southeast Asian culture. Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim were tasked by Disney to write a story that reflected Southeast Asian communities.
“We don’t see our faces, Asian faces, reflected in these large Hollywood movies,” Lim said. “Even though we know our culture is wonderful, it seems like the rest of the world is blind to it because we don’t see ourselves on the big screen. So being a part of bringing this kick ass princess to life is tremendous.”
In fact, Raya is the first Southeast Asian Disney Princess. That makes Tran, who is also Vietnamese, a part of history as well.
Nguyen makes history in the film as the first Vietnamese-American to be credited as a screenwriter on a major film. That’s something that he said surprised him, but was also a source of pride.
“It’s an amazing thing,” Nguyen said. “I just think, I hope I’m not the last. I hope it inspires other Vietnamese American or Asian kids to know that this dream is possible.”
The similarities in Raya’s story of seeking harmony in a world that is so divided can easily be applied to our world today. She lives in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons once lived in harmony. But an evil force threatened the land and the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now Raya must find the last dragon to restore Kumandra and its divided people.
Pretty heavy task for a young girl, but the way Nguyen and Lim developed this character it’s clear she’s up for the challenge. Raya’s story isn’t just based on one culture. The filmmakers brought in experts to help the story reflect real Southeast Asian cultures.
“The only perspective I have is the one I grew up in. And we wanted to really honor all of Southeast Asia,” Nguyen said.
Along her journey, Raya realizes it’s going to take a lot more than a dragon to save the world. It takes teamwork and unity, just like in real life. This is an especially important message during a time when anti-Asian violence is on the rise.
“It feels like everyday we’re reading another article about something horrible happening, or watching a news story about something painful that happened,” Tran said. “And, just like the characters in this movie, even taking one step toward a better world is worth fighting for.”
“Raya and the Last Dragon” stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, and Sandra Oh. It was co-written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen and co-directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. It’s available now in select theaters nationwide and on Disney+ for a premium fee.