'Raya and the Last Dragon': Meet the Women Behind Disney's First Southeast Asian Princess (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Snow White may have been the first Disney Princess, but she would not be the last to mark an animated milestone: in particular, after Cinderella and Ariel and Belle, Jasmine became Disney's first non-white princess, breaking down the door for the first Chinese princess in Mulan, first Black princess in Tiana and first Polynesian princess in Moana.
"It carries a lot of weight," says Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya. Having grown up loving Disney movies, she signed on to the film understanding the legacy of their princesses. "Now we're at this movie that really broadens the narrative in terms of, 'What do we think of when we think of the word princess? What do we think of when we think of the word hero?' It's really cool to be part of something that feels really monumental to this current time."
When we first meet her, Raya is more lone warrior than classic princess, setting out to the apocalyptic badlands in search of the sole surviving dragon (Awkwafina's Sisu) in order to save her kingdom from a villainous plague. At every step, she is challenged by a rival princess, Namari (Gemma Chan).
Alongside Tran, two of the women instrumental to Team Raya are producer Osnat Shurer (Moana) and writer Adele Lim. Though Kumandra may be fictional, Lim says she wrote the characters to be reflections of women she saw growing up. "Southeast Asia has a strong tradition of female leaders, female warriors and even to this day, Southeast Asian women are incredibly empowered," she says. "So, it made a lot of sense for her to be a princess."
Lim was also raised on a steady diet of Hong Kong kung fu movies where, she adds, "There was a certain female archetype that imprinted on me, that the women weren't always the pretty love interest -- they were the villain or the old matriarch, but they all could open a can of whoop-ass at will. Being able to combine that and also the traditional, strong women in Southeast Asia into Raya was very meaningful for us."
Ahead of Raya and the Last Dragon's premiere, ET sat down with Lim and Shurer to discuss the importance of introducing a Disney Princess from Southeast Asia and what Raya's future might hold.
ET: The message of this movie -- of finding trust in a broken, divided world -- is unbelievably timely. Not to start too heavy, but Raya is also coming out as we're seeing COVID really fuel racism against the Asian and Asian American community. What does it mean to you then to make history introducing Disney's first Southeast Asian princess?
Adele Lim: It's a big question but to boil it down, it's very personal for all the filmmakers, myself included. When we were creating the bones of the story years ago, before the pandemic, we could see that people were becoming more divided, more fractured, and a lot of us are parents and that is not the world we want our kids to grow up in. So, it was important to us that Raya, as this young girl who's raised to be a warrior and to protect the world, has her father's dream of this idealistic, perfect world that could be. And she has her heart broken by it. "Unity" and "trust" can be buzzwords. The big message that I think we're also proud of is [that] the act of pulling people together, it's not one magical act that is suddenly going to fix everything. You have to try again and again, even though it doesn't work, even though people might betray you, even though you might lose things, you still have to have hope and you still have to keep reaching out because that's the only way we're going to make it through this mess together.
And to the second part of your question, in terms of representation, there are so many huge problems out there in terms of what's keeping us apart -- you see it reflected in Raya, too. She grows up believing these other people are her enemy -- but after you've journeyed with people and you've broken bread with them, you can't help but feel the humanity in each other. And particularly, as an Asian woman working in Hollywood, as an immigrant, representation really matters. Being able to see ourselves on the screen means that the world sees us, too. It means America sees us, too. So, as a Southeast Asian woman, being able to have our first Disney princess and princess warrior be inspired by my culture and my people? Like, oh my goodness, yes. I feel like that's a huge move in the right direction.
Osnat Shurer: I agree. We didn't think of ourselves as prescient. We were telling a story about divisiveness and how you come together, and the more things developed with the pandemic, the more this movie became timely and timelier. We'd love to release it yesterday, because it's important to have it now. And also, it's a movie with three strong, interesting, flawed, powerful female leads exploring these incredible relationships we don't often see explored in Hollywood movies. That alone makes me really, really proud. If we can give the message that whoever you are, wherever you are in the world, tell your story, because it can count.
I love that Raya's dad is encouraging and excited for her to become this Guardian of the Dragon Gem. It's not a reluctant thing or something she has to do in secret or be trained elsewhere. He brings her in and accepts her as the person she is and is excited for her to become a warrior.
Lim: I'm so glad you picked up on that. Osnat had a lot to do with helping guide that. Something with strong female leads in an action movie, there's the whole thing of, I'm fighting against the fact that I'm not a boy! And in this movie, we don't even address it. She's already in this world as an equal player with equal weight, with equal responsibility and her fight and her quest has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman. It's not something that's held against her, and we can go on with the business of fixing the problems with the world without worrying about whether you're a woman or not. [Laughs]
Shurer: Also, the whole motivation of the movie is that relationship in the first act between her and her father. [There's] not a lot of screen time in which to establish it, and it was really important that the person who plays the father, that you get the warmth, you get the idealism but he's not preaching. He's, like, a cool dad, and he makes silly dad jokes. He's very real and so you love him and you understand her love for him and you understand what it is she loses and wants to get back through the film.
Where do you see Raya fitting in the pantheon of Disney princesses that have come before her?
Shurer: I came off Moana and went straight into Raya, so for me, the growth of the power of our female heroines is very close to my heart. I think they reflect their times. I think even some of our earlier princesses, in their time, they were really pushing boundaries. They were really pushing what the conversation is about. We stopped and asked ourselves more than once, "Does [Raya] need to be a princess?" Just because she's a female hero doesn't mean she has to be a princess. It was not a given. Disney didn't tell us we had to make a princess movie. But we decided to keep her a princess, because it was important to us to discuss leadership and to give her that responsibility that she has to understand and fulfill as she moves through the film. So, she's a princess, in that she is the daughter of the chief and she is born and raised to leadership, and then something awful happens and she has to find her way back. She has to find her way back to trust and a way to bring everyone together. It couldn't be more timely, it truly just couldn't.
Adele, you've spoken about how much your grandmother loved Disney. Were you able to get a nod or an Easter egg to her in the film?
Lim: You know what, if my grandmother was still around, this entire movie would be one massive egg for her. Because even though we don't shine the light on it, there's so much in the movie that if you grew up in the region, being able to see things not just the larger things, like the architecture and the costume design, but little things like our fruits, how we put out a family meal, how we mix things together. Even little Boun at the Shrimporium, I remember when we were talking about his character, there was a concern of, "He's young, would he be running a restaurant by himself?" And you know, in Southeast Asia, a lot of times in these food hawker stalls, the person coming up to you and hassling you about having exact change is the six-year-old kid who's doing the math in her head and who's got it down and is haranguing you for a tip. So, I think for people who've grown up in the region or are culturally familiar with it, it is very much a love letter to them.
Have you thought about your pie-in-the-sky hopes for Raya outside this movie? The little kids dressing up as her and where you would want to see her pop up in Disneyland, that sort of thing?
Shurer: How can you not when you make Disney movies? I mean, I'm seeing all the love that Moana still has and that people have from her. It's one of the great joys and surprises when you work on a Disney film, when the character starts taking on a life of their own, how that life continues. There's toys and there's music and there's books that extend the story and, of course, there's discussions of theme parks, especially in a movie as rich as ours, with these five lads that we've barely, barely touched on. You don't think about it while making the movie, because it's all about the story of the movie and finding the character. But somewhere in our hearts, we know we're Disney and that we have that great, great joy of being translated into 45 languages and books that tell extension stories where you can explore origin stories. It's very, very exciting. All of us have gone a little bit crazy buying toys online, because you're so excited. We show each other, "Look, I got the Raya doll."
Lim: I'll tell you a moment I had earlier today, actually. All of us on the team are buying all the stuff for our kids, and there's a video that Fawn [Veerasunthorn], our head of the story shared. It was her little girl, Kina, and she had Raya's sword and she was giving her father the business. For me, my heart just exploded, because so often young women don't get that heroine. Even when we're superheroes, it's always a quieter power. Sometimes we just want to have fun and we just want to get out there and mix it up. And the sword that she was fighting with, in Malaysia where I grew up, we have a dagger called kris, which is kind of curvy, and visual development found that there are similar swords and daggers in Indonesia and in other countries, as well, and having little Kina just attack her dad with a Disney sword inspired by our culture, I'm like, "Yes! Yes, to all of this."
You mentioned how Disney expands on these stories through books and theme parks. Now that we have Disney+, Disney is also building out these animated worlds and franchises with spinoffs and series. Moana just got her own series.
Shurer: Yes, she did.
When you're working on a film like Raya, is that something you're being asked to consider? What you could do supplementarily for streaming with these characters or in this world?
Shurer: Not really during the making of the film. We're really focused on a singular story. You know, these movies are not easy. I've been on this one for four years. We've put the story up in storyboards and tore it apart together with our directors and writers and did it again and again and refined the characters. And all we were thinking about is telling a complete story in a rich and interesting world with heart and humor. We do have a 98-year history to carry forward, which is that they touch your heart, they make you laugh, there's an epic feel to them. How that continues or what we do with that usually comes quite a bit later. We've all completed the statement. How it expands into the rest of the world or whether we do a series or do another film, that'll come later. And it usually comes from an exciting idea, as opposed to somebody saying, "Hey, Moana's popular." Sure, it helps if the character's popular, but the truth is, it usually starts from the creative side saying, "We've got another story to tell. What if Moana grew up?" Or, with an origin story, "What happened with the dragons 500 years ago?" Something that sparks enough filmmakers and it starts getting some traction, and then we get to make it.
Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.