Disney Presents the First Southeast Asian Princess

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Liberty Nguyen, Staff Writer

For Asian Americans across the country, the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 was a monumental event. First and foremost, it was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian cast in a modern setting. That’s pretty massive, taking into consideration the fact that Asian people are rarely ever seen in major movies in Hollywood. 

Now, many people online have shown excitement for Disney’s upcoming animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, which presents Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess.

Kelly Marie Tran, a Vietnamese American actress best known for starring in the Star Wars franchise, will be voicing the warrior-princess Raya. Tran makes history as the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to lead a Disney animated movie. 

Furthermore, Raya and the Last Dragon is heavily inspired by Southeast Asian cultures from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Laos. The movie will explore themes of companionship and unity, placing an emphasis on the significance of dragons in Asian culture.

Disney titles such as Aladdin and Mulan in the 1990s were considered groundbreaking for being centered around South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures. While most writers and producers at the time were predominantly white, Disney has made attempts to diversify their production teams. Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim will be joined by Qui Nguyen in writing the script for Raya and the Last Dragon.

Both Lim and Nguyen were excited to have their experiences as Asian people be respectfully depicted in Raya and the Last Dragon. Creative teams visited Southeast Asian countries to immerse themselves in different cultures before production. Additionally, concept art and designs were pre-approved by a Lao visual anthropologist and several cultural workers from Indonesia. 

Tran was glad that Disney pursued research to make sure Raya and the Last Dragon would accurately reflect its influences. She expressed, “I remember having this experience of recognizing some of the words… [and] some of the names and the locations… 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… and I don’t think that I knew that I needed that.”

After debuting in the Stars Wars franchise, Tran had been subjected to extensive racial harassment online, ultimately causing her to delete all of her Instagram posts. The experience sadly mirrored her early childhood experience of bullying.

In an article written for The New York Times, Tran reflected, “I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire adolescence wishing to be white.”

It’s important to highlight the significance of representation, especially when executed by a company as influential as Disney. Oftentimes, youth of color are subjected to copious amounts of white media to the point it transfers into internal biases and feelings of being left out.

As a Southeast Asian teenager growing up in America, it brings me hope to know that young people who look like me will be able to recognize themselves and their culture displayed on screen. Not often in the media are we able to witness Asian people not as just side characters to our peers, but rather as the heroes of our own stories.