Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world — it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
Raya’s journey to the screen has been less than smooth. Originally due to come out next month, the film was delayed early in the pandemic to March 12, 2021 as production continued remotely. The trailer gives the date only as “March 2021,” but specifies a theatrical release.
Meanwhile, Disney raised eyebrows in August by announcing that it had recast the lead voice actor, and added three directors/co-directors and a producer.
The directors are Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and the co-directors are John Ripa and Paul Briggs (who was credited as director before the reshuffle). Kelly Marie Tran, who shot to fame in the recent Star Wars films, replaced Cassie Steele as the voice of Raya, and will star alongside Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians). While no explicit reason was given for the changes, it’s worth noting that Tran, who is Vietnamese American, is the first Southeast Asian American to lead a Disney animated feature.
At the same time, Peter Del Vecho came onboard as producer alongside original producer Osnat Shurer, and Qui Nguyen joined Adele Lim (another Crazy Rich Asians alumna) as a writer. Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer of WDAS, provided the following statement to Entertainment Weekly on all the changes:
As filmmakers, Don and Carlos bring a combination of animation know-how and emotional storytelling to Raya and the Last Dragon, bringing our fantasy adventure to surprising, original, and dynamic heights. They both saw the potential for this film and had a strong vision for the story, especially for our lead character, played by the wonderfully talented Kelly Marie Tran. And no small feat, directors Don and Carlos, writers Qui and Adele, and the entire crew of 400 Disney Animation artists are making this film together, while separated and working from home.
Tran also spoke to the magazine about the film’s approach to cultural representation:
I remember having this experience of recognizing some of the words and recognizing some of the names and the locations and even certain characters and our job descriptions of what influenced them to be a certain way. I felt so seen, and it was such a blissful feeling. I don’t know if I can even explain it, but it was this surprise. I’ve worked on some things before which obviously weren’t as culturally specific as this, and I don’t think that I knew that I needed that.