Friday, October 23, 2020

Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon" Pays Tribute to Diverse Cultures of Southeast Asia (Teaser Trailer)

It's clear there has been a deliberate shift to properly represent diversity in Disney's upcoming animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, and we are so here for this!


Take a look at the just-released teaser-trailer:

Official description: Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.


People are already very excited about seeing real diversity in this teaser. Here are just a few of the many comments:

As for the specific efforts in representation during development and production, here are some examples of how the film's focus has shifted for this to become a major priority. From insidethemagic (August 2020):

" is clear that representation has become a major focus of the project.

Raya will be Disney’s first animated feature film to be inspired by Southeast Asia, and filmmakers Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and Producer Osnat Shurer, told Entertainment Weekly they’re working hard to accurately celebrate the influential cultures. They are making efforts to send creative teams on research trips to several Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and collaborate with linguists, dancers, Gamelan musicians from Indonesia, and a Laos visual anthropologist who is said to review every design before it is finalized.

Adele Lim, the screenwriter behind Crazy Rich Asians, and Qui Nguyen are penning the script. Nguyen said that both his and Lim’s life experiences are being used to write this film and that it has meant a lot, personally to see their cultures represented in costumes and martial arts, as well as references to his Asian American Identity.

“When you’re telling a story and you’re just doing it based on research, you end up always having to do it from the high end,” he said. “To have the artists who represent those cultures in there to be able to give the subtleties of what our families are actually like, what our relationships are actually like, has given a lot of nuances to this great adventure.

“To be able to have some [heroes] that look like me and my kids,” he added, “it’s gonna matter to a lot of folks.”

(Note: poster shown above is from the Disney Lunar New Year collection, for Disney China.)


There is an important rumor about this representation though, and one that might be worth keeping in mind. It's being said that because Raya is not a musical the main character won't automatically enter the Disney Princess franchise. It's going to depend on numbers and how "successful" the film is (by Disney Executive standards). So, if it's safe by the release date, bring your feet into the theater, and if it's not, pay the extra for "movie theater streaming at home". We need to underscore how important this effort at representation is, and give all those millions of kids around the world the merchandise they could greatly benefit from, to help them continue the experience of seeing themselves in this story, with a princess that looks like them.


As for the fairy tale and folklore elements of the movie, we've only seen a small amount to date but it's clear this will delve more into the realms of legends and allude to Southeast Asian folklore along the way. That doesn't mean there won't be fairy tale elements though. For the moment, the standout touchstone for folklore is the Last Dragon of the title (from Why Southeast Asians Should Be Excited About Raya and the Last Dragon):

The titular dragon is named Sisu and is voiced by actress/rapper/comedian Awkafina. She is the last of her kind and the goal of Raya’s adventure is to find out what happened to the dragons that used to inhabit the land. Sisu herself is able to change into a more human-like form, and is based on the naga, the mythical water serpent that permeates all of Southeast Asian culture.

This deity can be found in Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, with varying depictions of the dragon between cultures, but its general form and function as a water deity is preserved throughout. Evidently, Sisu isn’t going to be as tame as Mulan’s Mushu, and might just be a force to be reckoned with - like Maleficent’s dragon form.

We're very much looking forward to seeing the joy of exploring the diversity of Southeast Asian cultures in a Disney film, and seeing how it also represents the Southeast-Asian-American community as well, not to mention the stories, folklore, legends, and yes, the fairy tales, that are channeled in this film.

Disney's official posters for English and Japanese shown above.

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