“Crazy Rich Asians” screenwriter Adele Lim never thought in her wildest dreams that she would be part of a Disney animated feature, let alone one that is set in Southeast Asia.
But Disney’s newest tale, “Raya and the Last Dragon” (now streaming on Disney Plus), delivers its first Southeast Asian princess, Raya, a warrior who sets out across the mythical realm of Kumandra as she seeks out the last dragon.
Lim, who is of Malaysian descent, says: “To be a part of this where the place where I grew up was going to be the central inspiration and to have a Disney heroine, a warrior princess so that my daughter can look at and see her face reflected, means the world to me.”
The importance of Raya to Lim goes deeper than just seeing her culture represented in the feature. With a career that spans over twenty years, she has always been proud of her Malaysian heritage. “But I felt that part of me was always parked in a box somewhere because there was no space for that story,” Lim says, adding that there was never a chance to write a character that looked like her. “It would be hard to sell those stories.”
Writing Raya’s world came naturally to her, a process she describes like breathing. More importantly, she wasn’t the only Asian woman in the room. “I can’t tell you the number of amazingly talented artists we had on this movie. They could put their hearts and souls and their history into the film,” Lim says.
Another aspect Lim was delighted to bring to life and see represented on screen was the food which served to the authenticity of the film. “Any scene with Southeast Asians is food. We are obsessed with it,” says Lim. It was head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn who Lim says jumped at any chance to do the food scenes. With a large team of story artists and visual development artists behind the scenes, Lim says, “You can see how lovingly they picked the food. It was wonderful and exciting, but that’s what brings us joy, and that is the language of love.”
The timing of “Raya and the Last Dragon” could not be more relevant as anti-Asian hate crimes rise in America.
Actress Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the lead character, hopes the film will be cathartic for the Asian community and give them something to celebrate. Tran stresses the importance of representation and understands that hope is rare. She says, “What’s so cool with Raya is that [it’s being released] in the midst of this brokenness, and amid this horrible, emotional tumultuous time for people like us and people of Asian descent.” Tran continues, “I’m proud of being part of a moment and a movie that is celebrating where we come from.”
She is hopeful that audiences who watch “Raya and the Last Dragon,” regardless of race or socioeconomic background, will recognize that “human beings are just human beings, and we can all find compassion for one another.”
Screenwriter Qui Nguyen says the notion of any Disney film is about writing a story that is timeless. He is grateful the film will add to the conversation a message of hope. “Just like ‘Zootopia’ helped us talk about bias, and just like a ‘Big Hero 8’ helped us talk about grief, I’m excited and grateful that we get to start a conversation with our families about trust, forgiveness and about healing.”