In the era of cancel culture, storytellers are being faced with the decisions of whether to follow the current trends and whether to acknowledge or denounce their previous work that didn’t age well. Disney is one company that has figured out how to navigate this, and one example is the evolution of the Disney princess. Kelly Marie Tran, Disney’s latest princess and star of Raya and the Last Dragon, loves the idea that this film changes the idea of a Disney princess.
We started with Snow White, where our princess slept and had to be awakened by a prince. Fast forward to Tangled, where our princess chose to leave her tower and held the power in the film but still needed a man’s assistance. There’s nothing wrong with either of these films - I’m a huge Disney fan and love practically all of them. I was even a little sad that Moana and Elsa didn’t fall in love in their respective films. That being said, Raya is a brand new kind of princess, and here is what Kelly Marie shared with CinemaBlend about this:
I think growing up our perception of what was beautiful and what it meant to be a princess, we were sort of seeing the same image over and over and over in terms of what kind of person we should want to be. It does make it impossible if you’re not seeing yourself represented and you're not seeing yourself in heroes and in these sort of big stories, especially at a young age. Yeah, it feels really cool to be part of that change, to be opening up the story. And to hopefully let people see themselves in these characters that might not see themselves in media normally. Yeah, it's a big deal to me and it's a big deal to be working with the people that I'm working with because so many of them are doing this in their everyday lives. They're constantly fighting for visibility and equal representation. And I'm just overjoyed really to be part of this.
Kelly Marie Tran’s excitement about playing Raya radiates off of her and you can feel it when watching the movie, too. Not only is Raya wearing pants and going on an epic adventure that involves martial arts, but she is also Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. As Kelly Marie Tran stated, representation is so important because it allows young people of all different shapes, sizes and colors to see themselves as heroes, too.
The excitement goes so far beyond giving us another princess of color. Raya is relatable to people everywhere because of her weaknesses, as well as her strengths. She embodies the human experience in a way the princesses before her didn’t explore. Qui Nguyen, one of the writers of Raya and the Last Dragon, elaborated on this with the following:
I think it's just important to be able to give our lead character as much nuance and complexity and let her as an actor, as a character, be able to feel all the feelings of the human experience. Because I think that often when you get to see that it often is a male character, to be quite honest, and to be able to do that… We're all very aware that we're putting out a hero that isn't often seen very much in Hollywood cinema and we knew how much that was going to - how important that was going to be for a kid. It's really hard to watch a two-dimensional character represent you. It's so much more satisfying to see one that represents all the feelings that you feel and go, hey, you're justified in feeling those things. But ultimately, the bravery in taking that first step into trusting people is [feeling justified in your feelings]. It just makes that message so much more interesting to talk about and to receive.
Raya and the Last Dragon is not at all a political film or one that’s trying to make some grand statement, though its message still could not be more relevant. It tells the story of a land that’s broken by lack of trust and validates all the things that break trust in relationships. This film illustrates the strength and bravery that one needs to rebuild that trust and delivers the message from a badass princess.