Disney’s newest heroine is also the studio’s first Southeast Asian lead: Raya, the lead of Raya and the Last Dragon, a capable martial artist who wields a whip sword.
Kelly Marie Tran, who jumped from Disney’s Star Wars franchise to the animated world to voice Raya, tells Polygon she was super honored (“and pretty overwhelmed!”) to bring a princess who shared her ethnic background to life. But beyond cultural specificity, Tran pushed the creative team behind the movie to make Raya not just a badass warrior, but also someone with a nuanced personality and emotional depth. The directing and writing teams were happy to make changes to accommodate.
[Ed. note: This article contains slight spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon]
Tran and writer Qui Nguyen specifically worked to strike a balance between Raya’s power and her playfulness. The warrior princess’ witty back-and-forth with Namaari endeared her to Tran, but it was the character’s full range of not-often-seen emotions that really resonated with her; after losing her homeland, she feels deeply, gets upset and hurt, which affects her decisions throughout the film.
“I like that in the moment, she’s vulnerable, and she is sad and hopeless. And then in other moments, she’s angry and completely convicted. And at the end, she shows an immense amount of courage,” Tran says. “I like that Raya, as a character, has a wealth of human emotion from one side of the spectrum to the other.”
It’s a depth that you rarely see in animated Disney movies — specifically movies centered around princesses, who aren’t usually depicted as furious and righteous. Disney heroines do get angry: When Tangled’s Rapunzel realizes Mother Gothel has been using her for her magical hair, her frustration brims over; Mulan snaps at her father when he reveals he’s going to enlist in the army; and Jasmine gets upset when Aladdin and her father talk about her like she’s a prize. But that frustration and anger usually becomes a catalyst for sharp determination, not a consequence. Rapunzel’s anger leads to a triumphant moment of self-defense, Mulan goes and joins the army, and Jasmine’s fades when she gets to know Aladdin.
But at the end of Raya and the Last Dragon, Raya is angry. Angry in a way that clouds her judgement. Angry to the point where it could feasibly cost everything she’s worked towards. So angry that she storms towards Namaari in vengeance. “Justifiably, absolutely, incredibly angry,” as Tran says.
Tran matched that fury with Raya’s vulnerability. In one of the early scenes in the movie — right before Raya enters the cave where she eventually finds Sisu — the hero sets up a makeshift altar and says a brief prayer to the dragon, opening up about the mistakes she’s made. Eventually, overcome by emotion, she begins to cry. The scene was originally written much differently, Tran says, but she felt it was important to capture Raya’s sheer desperation in that moment.
“She’s in a really hopeless place. She’s been traveling for six years, and she doesn’t know if it’s going to work out. She doesn’t know if she wasted all this time. The world’s broken and her home, Heart doesn’t exist,” says Tran. “She’s lost pretty much everything.”
Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada encouraged Tran to go off-book, and the final version of the scene that ended up in the movie was totally improvised. It adds overall to Raya’s personality, but also to the greater trend of “strong female characters.”
“I think a lot of times when we get characters that are supposed to be strong female characters, sometimes they get written almost masculine to the point of erasing femininity,” explains Tran. “Raya is a character who is technically a badass warrior, but who also embraces other parts of herself.”
Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream on Disney Plus with Premier Access.
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