Disney’s upcoming Southeast Asian animated feature, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” has a new lead voice actress in “Star Wars” breakout Kelly Marie Tran, according to an individual familiar with the project.
Tran, who rose to prominence portraying Rose Tico in Rian Johnson’s 2017 blockbuster “The Last Jedi,” is taking over lead voice acting duties from former “Degrassi: The Next Generation” star Cassie Steele, who was initially cast in the role and helped promote the film at last summer’s D23 convention.
Tran will play the title role of Raya. The animated film, due in theaters on March 12, 2021, also stars Awkwafina as Sisu, the aforementioned last dragon. The film was co-written by “Crazy Rich Asians” co-writer Adele Lim, who is joined by “Vietgone” playwright Qui Nguyen.
Oscar-winning director Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” “Moana”) directs the film alongside “Blindspotting” director Carlos López Estrada.
“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,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee said in a statement. “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.”
The ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, like it did for much of Hollywood, caused Disney to have to scramble on production for “Raya and the Last Dragon,” for which production began ramping up in March, just as the pandemic hit in the U.S.
The team was forced to quickly reshuffle and now “Raya and the Last Dragon” will be one of the first Disney Animation features to be developed from remote locations amid the pandemic.
López Estrada told Entertainment Weekly that Tran’s audition blew them away so much they even decided to change a scene to match her performance. “We had this little dramatic moment; it was written as a few lines. And I remember her going, ‘Hey, I have some ideas because this is normally how I would say this or I have some questions. Do you mind if I tried it a little bit differently?'” he told the magazine. “She went for it, improvised for a minute, and had us all in tears. We changed the scene and reblocked the animation so that it would follow what Kelly did that day because she just clicked on something that was so much bigger than anything we had imagined.”
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be Disney Animation Studios’ first movie inspired by Southeast Asia, and what’s more, Tran is the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a film from the company.
That’s big considering the Disney film in which she rocketed to stardom was soured by racist internet trolls who harassed her for months, leading to the actress deleting all of her posts on Instagram and leaving the social media platform.
Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent, was the first woman of color to have a lead role in the “Star Wars” films, as more studios have made an effort to be inclusive and promote diversity.
During Disney’s annual D23 Expo last year, Lim and “Raya and the Last Dragon” producer Osnat Shurer explained that the film is inspired by Hong Kong action films with a setting inspired by Southeast Asia.
Set in Kumandra, a fantasy world with five lands and a sea shaped like a dragon, the film follows Raya, a lone warrior on a quest to find the last dragon, whom she believes can save Kumandra from a so-far unrevealed evil force. Meanwhile Sisu has become trapped in a human body and needs Raya’s help to find the power to return to her dragon form.
Longtime Disney story artist Paul Briggs will now serve as a co-director of “Raya” along with fellow co-director John Ripa. Dean Wellins, who was initially set to direct the film with Briggs is directing another project at Disney Animation.