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Raya and the Last Dragon Introduces Disney’s First Southeast Asian Princess. Advocates Say Hollywood Representation Shouldn’t Stop There

15 minute read

The arrival of Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest animated movie, brings cause for celebration among many in Asian and Asian-American communities. The film is a landmark moment for Southeast Asian representation in Hollywood: Raya is Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, and is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, the first Southeast Asian actor to lead an animated feature from the studio. Set in the fantasy land of Kumandra, which Disney has said is inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, the story follows the quest of the eponymous heroine as she searches for the fabled dragon Sisu in order to restore a broken world. The film—which is available on Disney+ with Premier Access and in select theaters on March 5— was co-written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter Qui Nguyen and Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim, the latter of whom is best known for co-writing Crazy Rich Asians. Fawn Veerasunthorn, who is Thai-American, led the artistic direction as Head of Story.

But steps forward in Hollywood are rarely clear-cut. While plenty of people shared their excitement around seeing their cultures represented onscreen as promotional materials for the film were released, others expressed concern, most notably about the lack of Southeast Asian actors in the cast as well as the approach of combining influences from multiple Southeast Asian countries into one story.

While the movie features a couple of other Southeast Asian voice actors aside from Tran—most notably the teen actors Izaac Wang and Thalia Tran, who voice the characters Boun and Noi, respectively—the majority of the top-billed actors are East Asian. They include Awkwafina, who voices Sisu, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong and Sandra Oh. On the day the full cast was announced, some took to Twitter to express their criticism. “They basically put the whole region in a blender and hired so little south-east Asian actors for the roles,” wrote Sandy, a 25-year-old graphic designer who lives in Manila. “When I looked at the cast, you do see Southeast Asian actors in the project but they’re only cast as Additional Voices,” Sandy, who prefers not to give her last name, tells TIME. “Additional Voices,” which in this film include Filipino-American actors like Vincent Rodriguez III (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) and Liza Del Mundo (W.I.T.C.H.), are typically characters in animation with no individual names specified and who contribute to group sounds. Also disappointed that the film does not tell a story specific to one country, Sandy tweeted, “This movie represents no one in particular.”

For Sandy, who spoke to TIME ahead of the movie’s release, the disappointment stings more because Disney UK had released a video ad in November 2020 that spurred her imagination for what was possible. Titled “From Our Family To Yours,” the three-minute, Christmas-themed animated short featured a distinctly Filipino family engaging in recognizably Filipiino traditions. The characters made parols, or star-shaped lanterns that are a popular Christmastime decoration in the Philippines, and performed mano, a gesture that honors the elderly. “It was probably one of the best representations of a Filipino I’ve ever seen because they really did research,” she says.

She is not alone in her initial response. A week before the release of Raya and the Last Dragon, a tweet about the film’s seemingly broad approach in portraying Southeast Asia—based on the teaser content—as well as the majority-East Asian cast received more than 26,000 likes. The lack of access to Disney+ in much of Southeast Asia has also added to fans’ frustration. Currently, Disney+ is available in Indonesia and Singapore. And Raya and the Last Dragon is opening theatrically in other countries where cinemas are open, including Thailand and Malaysia. Still, the absence of the streaming platform from a number of the countries that inspired the film has prompted discussions about its intended audience.

DISNEY—© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

How the film was made

Disney went to great lengths, quite literally, to conduct research for Raya and the Last Dragon. Before the pandemic, members of the production team traveled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore to learn about their cultures. The studio also formed the Southeast Asia Story Trust, similar to its Oceanic Trust for Moana. Led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, the Trust is a group of consultants with areas of expertise ranging from music and choreography to architecture and martial arts. They strived to make the film’s details more authentic to Southeast Asia, which was also front of mind for co-writers Nguyen and Lim.

“It was fun to have Fawn [Head of Story], myself, Adele, members in our animation, story teams, to arm wrestle a little bit about what things we can celebrate in our cultures. And it would be small details, like what food would be on the banquet,” Nguyen says. “We were all pitching different dishes and when you could get one little dish in there that was super recognizable, it meant so much.” He shares his excitement about a scene where Raya makes an offering with bánh tét, a glutinous rice cake eaten during Vietnamese New Year, which is also Nguyen’s favorite food and one that reminds him of home.

On a larger scale, Nugyen says the team’s approach of creating the fictional land of Kumandra could be likened to the making of fantasy worlds built on pan-European influences. “It was our Arthurian legend, our Game of Thrones, our Dungeons and Dragons that we were building when we were building Kumandra,” he explains. “It was a great opportunity to create an equally fascinating, fun world that kids would want to engross themselves in.” And in creating the five regions in Raya and the Last Dragon—each with its own personality and aesthetic, the filmmakers intentionally incorporated commonalities across Southeast Asia. “The easy thing we could have done was, this land in Kumandra was Thailand, this was Vietnam, this one’s Malaysia,” Nguyen says. “But then it gets into a really ugly place of going, oh, well, this country is bad, and this one’s good, and our hero’s from here.” Instead, inspirations from specific countries were infused across the setting. “For the visual development, there was a lot of talk about finding certain things that wove through a lot of the countries in Southeast Asia,” Lim says. “It’s exciting when there’s a shared trait.”

The significance of representation in casting

Others in the Southeast Asian community experienced similar responses to Sandy upon seeing the overwhelmingly East Asian cast. “It was definitely a mixture of excitement and then concern and disappointment,” Carolina Đỗ says about her first reaction. Đỗ is a co-founder and co-producing artistic leader of The Sống Collective, a group dedicated to amplifying voices from the Vietnamese diaspora. In Đỗ’s view, Disney is a powerful enough brand that it doesn’t have to rely on big-name stars to launch a successful film. “It doesn’t need stars, it has the power to make stars,” she says. Sandy gives the example of the studio casting Auli’i Cravalho, a native Hawaiian who made her voice-acting debut as Moana in 2016, proving that Disney has launched successful releases starring unknown newcomers.

The absence of a Filipino actor among the main cast has also been called out as a blindspot. This became especially salient because the initial pick to play Raya, Filipino-Canadian actor Cassie Steele, was replaced by Kelly Marie Tran in August 2020. Producer Osnat Shurer said the change was made because “there was a key change to Raya’s character.” In her essay “Disney’s Raya and The Last Dragon has a bit of an East Asian problem” published in January, Thai-American writer Laura Sirikul addressed the cast without Steele. “One of the more surprising things to see was the notion that no one of Filipino descent was part of the main cast to provide representation as part of Southeast Asia,” Sirikul wrote. The gap is all the more glaring given that Filipinos are the second-largest Asian-American group in the U.S.

DISNEY—© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Though the voice actors of an animated film may be less explicitly visible compared to the cast in a live-action movie, they have just as much opportunity to convey parts of their identities, according to Katie Do. “There’s so much to tell in a voice,” says Do, who is a programming coordinator at Asian CineVision—a nonprofit which has run the Asian American International Film Festival since 1978. “I bet the way that I speak has been influenced by listening to Vietnamese, which is a very tonal language.” Identifying with an actor in a film, she suggests, does not need to come from seeing their face on the screen.

This identification is all the more important given that animation generally attracts younger viewers, says Bing Chen, president and co-founder of Gold House, a nonprofit aimed at unifying Asian and Pacific Islanders and enabling more authentic representation. (The organization was also a part of the Southeast Asia Story Trust.) “It’s even more important for children, as they’re growing up and trying to fortify their own confidence and their own place in the world, for them to see the world as it should be—which is authentically,” he says.

Do says she does not fault the actors themselves for casting oversights. “As an Asian actor and writer myself, the pie for Asian actors and Asian American actors is so slim, that I can’t really be mad at these East Asian actors for seeing an opportunity and wanting to be a part of it,” she says.

Casting decisions also have implications beyond the specific movie at hand. “Each job is a means towards sustainability in each artist’s career,” says David Huynh, also a co-founder and co-producing artistic leader at The Sống Collective. “What about the Southeast Asian artists that don’t get to be a part of those tables, those conversations, where this one job could move them to another level?”

Specificity in storytelling

Raya and the Last Dragon offers a tableau of cultural references inspired by the whole of Southeast Asia. But there is a trade-off to casting a wider net. “When we say ‘Asian,’ it’s a huge grouping of people, of cultures, of history, of language,” says Jonathan Castanien, another co-founder and co-producing artistic leader at The Sống Collective, as he speaks about the type of nuanced storytelling he seeks. “When we’re grouped together like that it’s hard to hit everything,” he says. “I think by drilling down into specificity it’ll help with representation, and having richer stories and giving us more to celebrate.”

Asked about how Southeast Asia has been portrayed onscreen historically, Gold House’s Chen says “the big deficiency with a lot of this representation is treating the region like a monolith.” He explains that there is universality to be found in specific stories, naming Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari as an example of a recent film that effectively told a distinct story. “It’s not just Koreans playing a Korean family, it was even more specific than that. It was specifically an immigrant experience,” Chen says.

Stories with nuanced portrayals of Southeast Asian characters or Southeast Asia have been few and far between in film and television. “Right now, there’s a lot of Crazy Rich Asians, Bling Empire, House of Ho,” Asian CineVision’s Katie Do says. Bling Empire is a Netflix reality series, released in January, that follows the lives of wealthy Asians and Asian-Americans in Los Angeles, while House of Ho is an HBO Max docuseries, released in December, that follows the lives of a rich Vietnamese-American family in Houston. “I think it heightens the model minority myth,” Do says of the common narrative underlining ostentatious wealth. While these stories aren’t false, she says, there’s another side of the coin missing. “There are people who own grocery stores and laundromats and nail salons, and there’s so much nuance to those things.”

When it comes to onscreen depictions of Vietnamese Americans, in particular, one narrative thread has been hard to shake. “We’re still stuck with ties to the war or ties to the traumas of the war. And while that is a facet of Viet identity, it’s not the only thing,” says Carolina Đỗ from The Sống Collective. Despite this one-dimensional portrayal, there are a number of Southeast Asian countries—from Laos and Cambodia to Indonesia and Myanmar—whose stories are told more infrequently still in mainstream Hollywood entertainment. “Vietnamese at least are part of the conversation and have had screen time. But is it accurate representation? Probably not,” says Castanien. “Whereas a lot of our other Southeast Asian siblings and countries aren’t even part of the conversation,” he says.

In the past few years, Asian and Asian-American films that have received critical acclaim—such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Parasite and most recently Minari—have largely focused on East Asian experiences or have featured a predominantly East Asian cast. (Crazy Rich Asians, though set in Singapore, largely follows ethnic Chinese characters.) “It’s not East Asians excluding Southeast Asians but East Asians and Southeast Asians being put into a zero-sum game, where they have to compete for a limited amount of attention from people who finance and produce films,” says Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, an American Studies and English professor at the University of Virginia who also directs the Asian Pacific American Studies minor.

She suggests that “there is some East Asian privilege” when it comes to the types of stories that are told. “I don’t know if Minari could have been produced without the success of Bong Joon-Ho. I don’t know that The Farewell could have been made without Crazy Rich Asians,” Chong says. She explains that the money and backing that went behind the two earlier films paved the way for the later ones. (The Farewell was filmed before Crazy Rich Asians was released, but the Sundance bidding war to distribute it came less than half a year after the latter movie’s release.) “There hasn’t been that same Vietnamese-American film or the same Filipino-American film,” Chong says.

“Firsts” in order to get to “nexts”

Qui Nguyen says he distinctly remembers asking his kids who their favorite Asian superhero is, and they could not name one. “It was so important for me to provide them a movie that they can see that could affect their self esteem in a positive way—to know that they had the agency to be the lead characters in their own stories,” Nguyen says. He remembers their first reactions upon seeing the images for Raya and the Last Dragon. Thinking that Raya resembled Nguyen’s mother and the character Tong resembled his father, their immediate words were, “Wow, they look like Bà nội and Ông nội”—which means grandpa and grandma in Vietnamese.

For both Nguyen and Adele Lim, the film is a huge step forward in breaking ground for representation. “When there’s a project like Raya and the Last Dragon, it has a lot of attention put on it, and the people who have not been represented for such a long time have so much of their hopes and dreams pinned on it,” she says. “Ideally, we’re going to be in a world where we’re going to have lots of projects inspired by lots of different aspects of our cultures. And so that one project does not really have to handle the burden.”

DISNEY—© 2021 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

And while some members of the Asian and Asian American communities have commented on missed opportunities, many of them are celebrating too. “In order for there to be the movement forward towards a day where we have equitable representation that tells our stories in all of [their] amazing glory, we need to look at these subjects with nuance and and go, ‘Hey, we’re very excited that this is out, but this is where things can do better, so that for the next project, we’re coming into it with a blueprint,” says Carolina Đỗ. “We’re not trying to tear anyone down by offering criticisms. It’s yes, and—.’ It’s, ‘we see how amazing and successful this is, let’s have more of it.’”

Celebration comes with the expectation that historic moments in representation don’t end with this one. “I love ‘firsts’ for our community,” Gold House’s Bing Chen says, “because we need firsts to get to ‘nexts.’”

Correction, March 7

The original version of this story misstated Adele Lim’s national identity. She is Malaysian, not Malaysian-American.

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