With 'Raya,' Disney has their biggest animated action hero to date — and yes, she's still a princess

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·4 min read

The Mouse House has found the perfect way to honor its “Disney princess” legacy while simultaneously evolving with the times.

Raya and the Last Dragon, the studio’s acclaimed new adventure that, thanks to boatloads of action and stunningly realized animation, feels far more like an Indiana Jones movie than anything Disney has previously produced.

“I know a lot of people are very excited that we’re doing our first Southeast Asian princess movie, but when [co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada] and I were working on this, we always thought about it as an action-adventure movie,” screenwriter Qui Nguyen told Yahoo Entertainment (watch above) during a virtual press day for the film, which follows the titular warrior (Kelly Marie Tran) and the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) on a quest to save their feuding kingdom of Kumandra. “The heart of it was this big-action martial-arts spectacle.”

Disney Animation’s female-led properties have been trending in that direction since Mulan first picked up a sword and volunteered for battle in 1998. The shift has triggered debate over whether she and subsequent heroines, especially those with a flair for action and an agency of their own, like Merida (Brave) and Moana, should still be considered “Disney princesses.” It’s a term that’s felt increasingly antiquated in recent years, and the studio’s empowered heroines are leagues removed form the prince-dependent damsels in distress of yore — like Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) — up to Belle (1991’s Beauty and the Beast), Jasmine (1992’s Aladdin) and Tiana (2009’s The Princess and the Frog).

But Nguyen, who co-wrote the film with Adele Lim, specifically calls Raya “a princess movie.” One, the character literally is a princess: Her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is the chief of Kumandra’s Heart Land. And it’s a term the filmmakers readily embrace, especially in a politically polarized climate that has seen a rise in hate attacks on the Asian community.

“It’s a very interesting question because we took the time to sit down and talk about whether she needed to be a princess at all,” producer Osnat Shurer told us during an early press event for the film in January. “Just because she’s a female hero in a Disney animated movie doesn’t mean she has to be a princess. We thought about that quite a lot. And the reason we landed on having her be a princess, or daughter of a chief who would be a leader, is leadership, is responsibility. … The context for it was, as a leader, who are you? In a world that is divided and and has big issues, kind of like our world today, how do you hold yourself and what do you hold important? She's a great fighter, as a leader, she’s a great warrior. And that's cool, but in the end, it's not the warrior aspect of her that wins the day.”

Disney's 'Raya and the Last Dragon'
Raya and the Last Dragon (Photo: Disney)

Shurer understands the debate. She last produced the Oscar-nominated Moana (2016), a film that notably included one line of dialogue that seemed to signal Disney was ready to move on from its time-honored franchise. “I am NOT a princess,” Moana fires back at Maui (Dwayne Johnson) at one point, even though, like, Raya, her father is also a chief. “We don’t think of her as a princess,” Shurer told us prior to that film’s release. “We just think of her as one of our strongest lead characters.”

With Raya and its creators’ more accepting attitude toward her traditional designation, Disney is attempting to redefine what a princess looks and acts like in the 21st century. (Of course it’s worth noting the studio also has to consider its multimillion-dollar toy and merchandise lines that characters like Moana and Raya are expanding.)

“I think something that was really important to me coming into this, and really important to Disney as well, is we really are really trying to change that narrative,” Tran, whose Raya the filmmakers told us was partly inspired by Chris Pratt’s Guardians of the Galaxy hero Star-Lord, told Trevor Noah on The Daily Show Wednesday night. “What do people think when they think of the word ‘princess’? What do people think when they think of the word ‘hero’? And you’re seeing Raya and all these other characters sort of broadening the idea of what, instinctually, people think when they think of those words. It’s super-cool to be part of that change.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is now in theaters and on Disney+.

Watch the trailer:

— Video produced by Jon San and edited by John Santo

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