Why Raya and the Last Dragon Matters

Disney Animation's History of Portraying Asian Cultures

Disney has struggled to get representation right before. They applauded themselves for including their first openly gay character in Le Fou from the live action Beauty and the Beast, only to have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that confirmed he was gay. The Princess and the Frog featured the first Black Disney Princess, a true milestone. However, there was backlash due to Tiana spending most of the movie as a frog, the lack of sensitivity in choosing New Orleans as the setting, and the racially ambiguous Prince Naveen implying that Disney couldn’t commit to a Black prince. 

For a studio that creates movies that go on to define generations and form childhoods, they must be more careful with how they represent characters of various minority groups and cultures. Disney’s stories should commit to creating rich, diverse characters that get the screen time and narrative beats they deserve. Instead, they have been tiptoeing around diverse representation while still patting themselves on the back.

When Disney announced their first Southeast Asian Princess, the hype surrounding Raya and the Last Dragon was met with both optimistic and wary fans. At long last, the demands for a Southeast Asian inspired Disney film, and princess, have been heard. Trailers also boasted rich visual references to the region’s geography and cultures. Compared to Disney’s older endeavors involving Asian peoples and cultures, Raya feels like it is truly taking on the risk of fully portraying cultures that most Western audiences find unfamiliar.

However, Disney’s mixed track record on representation means that there is a chance the film would not deliver on its promise. As recent as the 2020 live-action Mulan, the film was under fire for having a white director and four white screenwriters, filming near the Uyghur concentration camps in Xinjiang, China, and having a story where neither plot or character feel culturally Chinese. Portrayals were even worse further back in Disney’s history, where stereotypes and primitive images roamed. Gradual improvements in those depictions offer hope that the House of Mouse could finally convey Asian cultures with respect. 

Disney Animation’s History of Portraying Asia and Asian Cultures

To understand why Raya and the Last Dragon is so crucial for Southeast Asian and larger Asian representation as a whole, we have to step into Disney’s history of handling Asian characters and cultures.

​​The early portrayals were unacceptable. Older Disney films, most notably Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Aristocats (1970), portrayed East Asians in the most stereotyped manner possible: slanted eyes, speaking in the thickest accents or gibberish, and chopsticks. The Jungle Book (1967), while set in India, doesn’t make that fact very clear, let alone touch on the country’s rich culture or history. The film’s narrative also perpetuated the racially charged idea that South Asia was animalistic and uncivilized with the message of staying with your own racial kind. To make matters worse, the film also portrayed stereotypes of Black people as the monkeys who want to be “real people” that definitely drew sharp modern controversy. All three films now have a racism content warning that plays at the beginning of the movie when streaming on Disney+.

The Disney Renaissance gave us Aladdin (1992) and Mulan (1998). Aladdin used the Middle East as its backdrop, painting it as a gruesome place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” The common folk in the film are portrayed as mean, greedy merchants with enormous teeth and large noses. They seem cartoonishly villainous compared to the anglicized depictions of the protagonists. The bar for Middle Eastern representation was so low that a writer saw Aladdin as somewhat of a “positive representation” because all other media portrayed Middle Easterners as villains and terrorists. 

Mulan was ultimately a mixed bag of cultural accuracies and inaccuracies. While the directors and screenwriters were white, the film featured a primarily East Asian cast (plus Eddie Murphy), with Chinese actors Ming-Na Wen and BD Wong playing leads Fa Mulan and Li Shang respectively. This casting, despite also including Japanese and Korean voice actors for a story inspired by Chinese folklore and set in China, was an improvement from Aladdin’s all-white cast. Mulan’s largest racial blunder is its demonic depiction of Central Asians. The Huns, the villains of the film, are portrayed with darker skin, menacing yellow eyes and fangs. Audiences also had some difficulty connecting to the film’s protagonist. Some viewers in China thought Mulan didn’t look Chinese enough, while western audiences found her too foreign.

Despite Mulan’s stumbles, it was clear that Disney was learning. The studio would continue to make improvements, culminating in Moana (2016). While not a depiction of Asian culture, Moana demonstrates how far Disney has come and where there are still oversights. A win, for example, was the Oceanic Trust Fund formed for the film, made up of cultural experts and advisors to help guide the film’s portrayal of Polynesia. A huge blunder was a Maui costume that promoted brownface. Despite some criticizing the film for lumping Polynesian cultures together, many Pacific Islanders were excited and proud to have their culture on the big screen.

With Moana’s extensive research and rich cultural depictions, the standards have been set. Raya ought to set a new bar, lest the studio stir up more damaging controversy.

Celebrating What Raya Did Right

For the first time in Disney history, we have a movie that looks and feels like Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian creators were at the heart of the filmmaking process. Malaysian American Adele Kim (screenwriter of Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese American script writer and playwright Qui Nguyen (Vietgone, Netflix’s The Society) helmed the screenplay. The Head of Story was Thai-American Fawn Veerasunthorn who had central roles in overlooking the storyboarding process and the direction of the film. Kelly Marie Tran, who is Vietnamese American, voices the titular character. There are other Southeast Asian voice actors that played key characters: Chinese and Laotian American Izaac Wong plays the charismatic congee server Boun; Thalia Tran, of Southeast Asian descent, plays the con baby Noi. Southeast Asian representation has never been so strong in a Disney film.

The production team also created a cultural research and guidance team, much like Moana’s Oceanic Trust. The Southeast Asia Story Trust consisted of Southeast Asian cultural experts. From linguists to martial artists, the production team brought together a crew that would guide them on the cultural details of the story and world of Raya. The short extra feature “Creating Kumandra'' on Disney+ shows filmmakers, including directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, visiting Southeast Asian countries to observe and learn the region’s extensive geography and culture, including architecture, performances, rituals, food, and martial arts.

Raya’s land of Kumandra is filled to the brim with cultural details. There are larger setting references and inspirations, such as Raya’s home resembling the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the floating markets of the Talon tribe appear to be pulled straight from Thailand. Smaller details exist in the food, the textiles, the gestures. Viewers could notice Raya’s animal companion snacking on longan, fights choreographed using Pencak Silat from Indonesia and Malaysia, and characters performing a hand gesture based on the Buddhist “wai” greeting. The film is filled with “cultural easter eggs” that Southeast Asian audiences would immediately recognize and be proud of seeing their culture in the film.

The movie also garnered praise for the character of Raya. A strong warrior with a compassionate heart, she fits right in with Disney’s recent trend of making more powerful female characters that do not need a prince to reach their happy endings. Disney has also learned from Mulan’s character design, as this time they have created a protagonist that is immediately recognizable as Southeast Asian by real life Southeast Asians. 

​​Raya and the Last Dragon was shaping up to be the definitive representation of Southeast Asia in Hollywood and animation. However, steps forward aren’t always so clear cut.

Questionable Choices and Double-Edged Swords

For each casting praise the film received, there was a controversial choice. Aside from Kelly Marie Tran, Izaac Boun, and Thalia Tran, the other credited voice actors for main roles were East Asian (except for the white Alan Tudyk, who plays the animal sidekick). The titular “Last Dragon” Sisu is voiced by Chinese and Korean American Awkwafina. Other East Asian voice actors include British Chinese Gemma Chan as Raya’s rival Namaari, Korean American Daniel Dae Kim as Chief Benja, Raya’s father, and Benedict Wong as the warrior Tong. 

For a film that was supposed to be a representation of Southeast Asian culture, casting East Asian actors seemed like Disney was muddling the lines between Southeast and East Asian cultures. Additionally, it would have been the perfect opportunity to cast Southeast Asian actors, who are very rarely casted. Many fans were disappointed to not see new Southeast Asian stars rise to prominence instead of Disney capitalizing on Hollywood’s already established, big name East Asian actors.

Despite the rich detail of the setting, Kumandra itself drew criticism. The film took a “pan-regional approach” to develop its setting, meaning that Kumandra took inspiration from multiple cultures, including Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Malaysian, and Indonesian. Each of the five tribes are not directly correlated with a real life culture. Screenwriter Nguyen attributed this choice to not wanting to label a single culture as “the enemy.” An echo of Moana’s criticism, the takeaway many viewers had was Disney doing large brush strokes across multiple cultures, ticking as many nation representation points as possible while being too afraid to immerse itself in one. Combined with the East Asian casting, some viewers felt that Raya painted Asia as a cultural monolith.

When it comes to the story and Raya herself, the cultural influences don’t seem to run so deep. Jasmine Gallup comments on how the cultural aspects of Raya’s character were never explored. Unlike Moana, whose character arc focused on her reconnecting with her culture’s wayfinding history, intersections between Raya’s culture and identity were never explored. Gallup writes, “As Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, Raya will be a model for girls all over the world. However, it’s hard to pinpoint anything about her that’s intrinsically tied to her heritage.”

Raya’s quest to stop the Druuns has also been called a “Western Hollywood plot.” At least partly, this conclusion was Nguyen’s intention. He wanted to create a multi-cultural epic myth using various Southeast Asian cultures in the same vein as Arthurian Legend incorporating multiple European cultures. The goal was to create a Southeast Asian epic. His ambition must have also led to the “melting pot” approach of Kumandra which, while building a rich world, triggered doubtful questions from viewers. 

Many of the film’s cultural representational faults stemmed from good intentions of the writers conveying a mixed message to the audience. Raya and the Last Dragon is a strong departure from the days where Disney animated a Chinese cat playing the piano with chopsticks. Raya definitely did not lack in research, talent, or dedication. Rather, some of its casting and creative choices brought more complicated discussions about cultural representation to the table. Good intentions can only carry a story so far. Ultimately, the integration of culture and story is what resonates with people. Raya, without a doubt, has raised the bar for Southeast Asian representation. But it is a bar that Disney and other studios should be aiming to surpass, not match.

Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What were your thoughts on it as a movie, or as a project meant to further Asian representation? Or is there a childhood Disney favorite that you ever looked back at and thought differently about how it used culture? I’d love to hear from you all!

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Continuing to think about cultural portrayals in animation and film:

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