‘Raya and the Last Dragon’: Disney’s first Southeast Asian movie


Walt Disney Animation Studios

Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” official teaser released on October 21.

Disney’s first Southeast Asian animation feature, Raya and the Last Dragon” is about a fantastical world where dragons once roamed and includes realistic grounded elements of Southeast Asian culture and geography. It will open in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access on March 5.

The animated movie is about a young girl named Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who goes on a quest in search of the last dragon in order to save humanity. The film also stars Golden Globe winning actress, Sandra Oh, and other notable actors like Awkwafina and Gemma Chan. It’s set in a fantasy world that is influenced by the countries of Southeast Asia, where each region has its own architecture, personality, and topography; being split into five distinct dragon-inspired regions: Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail.  

Creative teams and artists for the film did significant research prior to production, taking trips to Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam to help bring the film’s scenery to life. Disney also formed a team of specialists, the Southeast Asia Story Trust, that included experts from various fields such as visual anthropology, linguistics, botany, architecture, and martial artists, to help the team stay true to the Southeast Asian culture reflected in the story.

The director of the film, Carlos López Estrada, expresses the importance this film has on today’s youth.

I think thatit’s just a pleasure to see the culture that we come from be celebrated in a big Disney film. Like, there have been movies about Southeast Asia, but you’ve never seen it at this scale. And seeing it come from Walt Disney, I think it’ll help our children be inspired and to be proud of the cultures that they come from, that was something that felt very important to us,” Estrada explained on press day.  

The inspiring stories of the main characters are important as well. Raya, an 18-year-old protagonist goes on a journey to find the remaining dragons in Kumandra to restore harmony and safety to the land. Due to her trauma of losing loved ones in the past, she is emotionally closed off. Nevertheless, her personality and spirit remain to be brave and strong, yet humorous. The film’s hero gives the screenwriter Adele Lim personal connection and experience.  

“As a Southeast Asian woman, Raya’s character has special significance for me,” Lim said. “There’s a history of strong female leaders and warriors in the region, and I personally grew up in a family of really amazing women who inspire me and also scare me a little bit every day. So, it’s important that Raya’s actions and attitude embody that same spirit. And you can see it in her leadership and her fearlessness, love of family, the sense of responsibility that she takes for other people.” 

Lastly, Raya’s characterization and individuality breaks stereotypes of portrayals of Asian American characters in the past. The importance of this feature is confirmed by script co-writer and martial arts consultant Qui Nguyen. 

“When characters that look like me show up in action movies they’re always depicted in one certain way: stoic, serious, oddly obsessed with bringing honor to our family,” Nguyen said. “Raya is an action star that actually sounds like us, too. She’s fun. She’s quippy. She’s clever.”