Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is due for release on March 12, 2021. It has already made history – because Kelly Marie Tran is now the “first actress of Southeast Asian descent to lead a Disney animated movie” and the movie is also the first Disney film to be “inspired by Southeast Asia”. As Entertainment Weekly reports in their latest issue featuring interviews with Kelly and the filmmakers, a lot of effort was put into making sure the story accurately represented Southeast Asian culture, and Kelly, who is Vietnamese American, tells the magazine that this had a profound effect on her:
"I remember having this experience of recognizing some of the words and recognizing some of the names and the locations and even certain characters and our job descriptions of what influenced them to be a certain way," Tran says. "I felt so seen, and it was such a blissful feeling. I don't know if I can even explain it, but it was this surprise. I've worked on some things before which obviously weren't as culturally specific as this, and I don't think that I knew that I needed that."
It's what she didn’t know she needed but I wonder too if a part of it is not wanting to need it because you don’t believe that it’ll ever happen for you. Many people of colour are probably familiar with that conflict – of course you want to feel seen, but at the same time, because you are often so unseen, you almost… get used to it, and you stop expecting it.
Kelly talks about her excitement over Crazy Rich Asians and how special it was for her and her friends to go see that movie, to see a story that was centered on people who “look like me”. And now she’s the lead in a film that will have that effect on others. This is a perfect example of why diversity can’t just happen on one level. Asians are already unrepresented in Hollywood. If there are Asian stories though, they’re mostly East Asian. Mulan, for example, is an East Asian story. And six months after the release of Mulan (premiering on Disney+ next week), a Southeast Asian story will be front and centre, with all the power of the Disney machine behind it.
There will be a Southeast Asian Disney princess!
And who better to play her than Kelly Marie Tran? You’ll recall, her previous Disney experience was problematic. At the start, of course, being part of the Star Wars Universe is a big dream – but unfortunately, Rose Tico was not embraced by a certain segment of the Star Wars fandom. For whatever reason they decided they hated her and they targeted her to the point where she had to avoid social media and pretty much mute herself. She wrote about the experience in the New York Times. Then, last year, when The Rise of Skywalker came out, she was disappointingly only in less than ten minutes of it. But Star Wars doesn’t have to define her. And obviously she’s put that behind her.
Because now she’s made history. Now she’ll be known for history-making Raya, a warrior-princess inspiring thousands maybe millions of kids growing up. And some adults too.