FILM

UPDATED: What we know so far about Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess

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“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be Disney Animation Studio’s first feature since 2016’s "Moana." It is set for an early 2021 release. Photo from RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON/OFFICIAL INSTAGRAM

Update: On August 27, Disney announced major changes on the film, recasting Kelly Marie Tran as the voice of Raya. This article has been edited to reflect the changes on the production of the film since this was originally posted on August 5, 2020.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It would be hard to recall your childhood sans the magic and wonder brought about by Disney’s animated features. For nearly a century, the company has painted the imaginations of millions of families, and it stands as a reckoning force in the arts and entertainment industry today.

In 2019, Disney released exclusive footage from their next upcoming animated film, “Raya and the Last Dragon” during their D23 Expo. The best part? It’s to feature their first Southeast Asian lead. Initially set to be released this later year, “Raya” was among the many upcoming films to suffer a delay due to the COVID-19 crisis. It is now slated for a March 12, 2021 release. While we eagerly await for yet another Disney adventure, here’s what we know about the project so far.

The film will be set in a fictional, fantastical world.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” will take place in the mythical realm of Kumandra, which is ruled by five different clans. It seems like the worldbuilding approach will be similar to that of Nickelodeon’s “Avatar” series, where four nations are loosely based on different Asian cultures. For this project, inspiration will be drawn from countries in Southeast Asia: including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

According to producer Osnat Shurer (“Moana”), Kumandra is a “a reimagined earth inhabited by an ancient civilization that venerated the mythical dragons for their power and their wisdom.” The story will explore themes of unity and companionship, particularly on the significance of dragons in Asian culture.

"Crazy Rich Asians" writer Adele Lim has signed on to write the script.

During the studio’s ‘90s renaissance, titles like “Aladdin” and “Mulan” were considered groundbreaking for being centered around South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese cultures. While head writers and producers at the time were predominantly white, Disney has recently made attempts to diversify their production teams even further. "Crazy Rich Asians" co-writer Adele Lim, who is Malaysian-American, will be writing the script for “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney has announced major changes since D23 expo in 2019.

When the film was first announced at the D23 Expo in 2019, Filipino-Canadian actress Cassie Steele was to play the titular character alongside Awkwafina as the water dragon Sisu. “Star Wars” actress Kelly Marie Tran will be taking over instead, as announced through Entertainment Weekly on August 27. However, actress-comedian Awkwafina will still be voicing Sisu.

Don Hall (who directed "Big Hero 6") and Carlos Lopéz Estrada will be directing the film alongside Paul Briggs and John Ripa as co-directors. Qui Nguyen will also join Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”) as a writer.

The film will be entirely produced and animated from different homes.

The pandemic struck right around the beginning of production. Disney Animation Studios elected to push through with the project, allowing its crew of over 400 artists to work on the film remotely. Hall revealed that the “Raya and the Last Dragon” is halfway done with animation. He calls it “the most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen.”

Several Southeast Asian companies will be involved in consulting and research.

Both Nguyen and Lim were excited to have their experiences as Asian people be respectfully depicted in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Creative teams were sent on trips to Southeast Asian countries to culturally immerse themselves before production. The writers will also be working closely with a group formed called Southeast Asia Story Trust (Disney also formed the Oceanic Story Trust for “Moana”), while concept art and designs were pre-approved by a Lao visual anthropologist and several cultural workers from Indonesia.

During such a socio-politically devastating time like the COVID-19 pandemic, projects like “Raya and the Last Dragon” shine as a beacon of hope. Disney Animation Studios still hopes to deliver a loving and faithful representation of Southeast Asia. It only goes to show that creativity, collaboration, and love for one’s heritage will always endure.

It goes without saying that representation matters, especially in a company as influential as Disney. As they further expand their current canon of 'princesses,' more people can have a chance to see themselves as the heroes of their stories. While there is still much we have yet to know about “Raya and the Last Dragon,” there’s something hopeful about knowing there’s a warrior-princess out there that’s just like me.