Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran is the new star of the Disney animation “Raya and the Last Dragon”, an original fantasy film strongly influenced by the traditions and cultures of Southeast Asia.
Disney also gave the film’s first glimpse of a computer-generated Raya and her trusty steed Tuk Tuk, which the creators describe as “a hazy bear meets an insect version of an armadillo.”
Tran is reprising the role of Canadian actress Cassie Steele. The film is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, with playwright Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim on board as screenwriters.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” takes place in the kingdom of Kumandra, where dragons and humans lived in harmony until the Druun monsters invaded and forced the dragons to sacrifice themselves for humanity. The film follows Raya – part princess, part warrior – and her journey to find the last dragon to save Kumandra from the forces of evil.
Awkwafina will play alongside Tran as Sisu, a human-shaped dragon who needs Raya’s help to reclaim his power and become his true dragon.
Tran makes history as the first Southeast Asian actress to direct a Walt Disney Animation Studios film.
The creators and the studio wanted to accurately portray the Southeast Asian cultures they draw from, including countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. A representative from Disney Animations said he formed a group called the Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust, similar to the Oceanic Story Trust which was formed for “Moana,” which includes anthropologists, linguists, dancers and gamelan musicians from around Indonesia, among others. Production designers and other creatives also traveled to parts of Southeast Asia to review the designs.
Tran is best known for her role as Rose Tico in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017) and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019). Since the release of “The Last Jedi,” she has been the subject of many massive trolls and racist slurs on social media, and she deleted her Instagram profile in June 2018 following constant criticism in the comments on his race.
Prominent figures, including his “Star Wars” co-stars Mark Hamill and John Boyega, have come to his defense, along with several fans.
In August 2018, Tran wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about how she began to believe the harassing comments.
“Even though I hate to admit it, I started to blame myself. I was like, ‘Oh, maybe if I was thinner’ or ‘Maybe if I grow my hair’ and, worst of all, ‘Maybe if I wasn’t Asian.’ For months, I descended in a spiral of self-hatred, into the darkest recesses of my mind, places where I tore myself apart, where I put their words above my own esteem. And that’s when I realized I had been lied to, ”she wrote.
Now fans are celebrating Tran’s evolution into a Disney princess on social media.
Actress and writer Jenny Yang said in a tweet that she was “proud of my talented friend.” Director Tze Chun applauded Tran as Disney’s first lead actor in Southeast Asia.
The film was gaining momentum when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but the cast and 400 crew members – including Hall, López Estrada, Nguyen and Lim – worked remotely during the year. The film is already 50% animated, Hall, the director, said in an interview with EW.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is scheduled for release on March 12.