Raya and the Last Dragon is set to be Disney's first major theatrical release of 2021, and the first one in nearly a year. The movie was originally set to debut at Thanksgiving last year, but the ongoing pandemic had other plans. A lot of people are waiting patiently, or not so patiently for Raya as it will mark the first South Asian heroine in a major animated Disney release. There's a lot riding on this character, and Raya will be brought to life thanks to the voice of Star Wars: The Last Jedi's Kelly Marie Tran. However, that wasn't originally the plan.
Back when Raya and the Last Dragon was originally announced in the summer of 2019, Cassie Steele was announced as the voice of Raya. A year later, we were told that Kelly Marie Tran now had the job. I had the chance to speak with some of the filmmakers behind Raya and I asked producer Osnat Shurer why the casting switch had been made. She explained that Raya's voice had to change because Raya herself went through changes, and so Steel's voice no longer fit. According to Shurer...
There was a key change to Raya's character. The original [voice actress], of course she's wonderful, and she was a perfect fit for Raya's character then, and then the character changed a lot, and so it was necessary to shift voice. and Kelly just embodies Raya. The character shifted and then it shifted even more, as that work together starts to happen between the voice and the writer, the animators and it takes on a whole different life. It's just one of those creative change moments.
Exactly how Raya has changed since the earlier version of the character is unclear, but it's unsurprising that the change happened at all. Animated movies are unlike their live action counterparts in many obvious ways, but one of the biggest differences is that, unlike a live-action film, where a screenplay is written, given the green light, and then left largely unchanged, the story of an animated movie can go through a multitude of changes, sometimes right up until the point that animation is being finalized.
For somewhat obvious reasons nobody was quite willing to go into specifics of the change in Raya, but when I asked why Kelly Marie Tran was better suited to the new version of the role, Osnat Shurer explained that it wasn't a single quality that make Tran the right choice, but a combination of several things that the actress was able to bring together in the perfect way.
There's a wit, a warmth, a strength, and then, a vulnerability that still had power behind it, that all combine together... Kelly brings all that together in one bundle of a super-talented actor. She's a producer's dream.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a somewhat different film for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It's not a musical, Raya doesn't need to sing. However, it is the most martial arts focused movie Disney has yet produced. It's not a straight "action movie," there is still humor to be had and the heart you expect from Disney animation. Maybe a previous version of Raya was a bit more serious, or a bit more humorous. Either way, as the character changed, the old voice simply no longer fit. We'll all get a chance to see just what sort of character Raya is when the film debuts in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access on March 5. .