Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Comes at a Poignant Time for Asian Americans

There’s no question the global pandemic has affected the lives of many within the United States having the highest COVID-19 cases and death rate. The previous administration under President Donald Trump blamed China for the deadly coronavirus, labeling the disease as the “China Virus” and, more broadly, putting targets on the backs of Asian Americans by fellow citizens who are angry by the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Since then, there has been a rise in Anti-Asian hate crimes throughout the U.S. After multiple attacks on the elderly Asian population, the media started to notice, thanks to the help of Asian American advocates and allies pushing for these stories to be shared. Multiple brands, including Disney, Nike, and Apple, began releasing statements condemning the attacks on Asians and where people can donate and show support.

It seems like the perfect time to release Raya and the Last Dragon, a Disney film inspired by Southeast Asian cultures and traditions. Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra where humans and dragons lived together in harmony. That sadly ends when the Druun, an evil entity, threatens the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, the Druun have returned and Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the lone warrior princess, must find the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), to stop the Druun and save the world. The film’s theme is centered around trust and how Raya must learn to trust in order to achieve saving the world.

Raya seeks the help of the legendary dragon, Sisu. Seeing what’s become of Kumandra, Sisu commits to helping Raya fulfill her mission in reuniting the lands. Featuring Kelly Marie Tran as the voice of Raya and Awkwafina as the voice of Sisu, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

During the Raya and the Last Dragon press conference last week, the creative team and All-Asian cast shared their concerns surrounding the recent attacks in the Asian American community. 

Screenwriter Qui Nguyen shared that while making the film, no one expected that the movie would come out during a time of injustice towards the Asian American community. Although Nguyen is aware of the negativity towards Asians, he hopes that Raya’s story will have a positive impact by celebrating Asian American people. 

“I think that if you only see, and I think this is with any group that’s underrepresented, stories where you’re seen as the bad guy or a thug or what have you, it starts to paint a very negative picture of you for those who don’t ever get to know you, who never get to be in the room with you,” explained Nguyen. “So I think step one is representation and really being out there. [We should be] both behind the camera, the stories we tell, and by just being out there. So we realized we can acknowledge that this world is all of us, not just one of us. Because without that, I don’t know how we get better. So I’m appreciative and grateful that this movie is coming out when it is.”

Daniel Dae Kim, who portrays Raya’s father Chief Benja, has been at the forefront of Asian American advocacy and has participated in countless discussions surrounding the recent rise in attacks. Kim, alongside fellow actor Daniel Wu, recently offered an award to find the suspects who recently attacked an elderly man in Oakland, California. Kim shared that the film is coming at the right time because it’s a Disney film that has a positive portrayal of Asians. He emphasized that the film will be seen by multiple families. 

“I’m also thinking about all the children who will be seeing Raya for the first time and seeing an Asian —  strong female who kicks ass and becomes a queen,” said Kim. “She’s on the path to becoming a ruler and she’s being groomed by her father to do that in a loving relationship. All of these things are such a positive portrayal. It’s [the] exposure that brings understanding, and that understanding is what changes perception. What this movie does, on the scale of those things, cannot be underestimated.”

In the dangerous floating market of Talon, Dang Hu offers safety to a curious Sisu. Featuring Awkwafina as the voice of Sisu and Lucille Soong as the voice of Dang Hu, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Director Carlos López Estrada learned so much from his experience working on the film. Estrada, who is of Mexican descent, appreciated experiencing the film through someone else’s eyes and a perspective that he wouldn’t have. 

“Raya does that in a way that it’s very optimistic, very hopeful,” Estrada explained. “And through it, we got to learn about cultures that were not our own people, that were not our own problems, and that were not our own. And it brought us together in a beautiful way. And I think that if we’re able to bring a little bit of that light and a little bit of that empathy to people, I think we would. We’re just feeling so proud of this movie, this group of people that we’re working with the time when it’s coming up. We feel like we’re adding something really valuable to a really important conversation.” 

Raya and her nemesis, Namaari, face off amid the snowy mountains of Spine. Featuring Kelly Marie Tran as the voice of Raya and Gemma Chan as the voice of Namaari, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021. © 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Tran, who had experienced online bullying throughout her career, felt the movie connected her to what’s going on in society, “There’s a moment for me, specifically, with Raya. Just towards the end of the movie, she gets to feel justifiably and absolutely unapologetically angry. For me, seeing a young woman in a movie like this, just to get that feeling of righteous anger, and then recognizing that the thing that pulls her out of it is seeing her friends and how they’re helping people. It just feels so real to me, because I think all of us — I don’t want to speak for everyone — but I can say, all of us seeing these sorts of attacks happening over and over and over consistently, you do get to that place sometimes where you feel like ‘Oh, this is a very broken world.’ And, I’m feeling a lot of things right now. And, recognizing that for me, that moment felt so grounded in reality. You can’t just say trust unity. Yeah, it’s gonna be fine. Acknowledging that there’s a lot of pain that happens there and recognizing that and the only way to get through it is to look for the bits of hope in your community.”

Raya and the Last Dragon premieres March 5 on Disney+ Premier.

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