Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on March 15, 2022. "Raya and the Last Dragon" has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Click here to listen.
In Disney’s new film "Raya and the Last Dragon," Raya is a young warrior in the fantasy land of Kumandra, where humans and dragons have lived together for centuries.
But an evil force known as Druun turned the dragons and many of the humans into stone, with the remaining people split into warring factions. On her mission to restore peace, Raya manages to find the last surviving dragon, Sisu. "Raya and the Last Dragon" opens in theaters and is available on Disney+ beginning Friday.
Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya, says the film feels “strangely relevant” during the pandemic. The “Star Wars” star says playing fearless warrior Raya taught her that bravery takes on different forms.
“I want to be more like her,” Tran says. “I always think to myself as an actor, if I'm not learning something, like a deep new core belief, from every character I'm playing, then I'm probably doing it wrong.”
Raya’s bravery transforms throughout the film as she learns to take a chance on other people. An important part of Raya's mission is finding all the missing pieces of a powerful but broken dragon gem and trying to put the whole thing back together. Raya and dragon Sisu collect pieces along their journey together.
Tran and Awkwafina, who voices Sisu, recorded their performances independently. When the two finally met on Zoom, Tran says that banter came naturally with the “infectious,” “talented” Awkwafina.
In the film, Raya idolizes dragons as a kid and humans regard Sisu as a legendary deity — but Sisu’s character is funny, self-deprecating and insecure. Sisu isn’t what Raya expected but as their relationship evolves, Raya learns to recognize unexpected beauty and wonder within the dragon, Tran says.
“I think that being able to sort of separate any sort of perception we have about a person and just really celebrate who they authentically really are, I think that's a really important aspect of their relationship and an important lesson that Raya learns,” she says.
All of the heroes and rivals in "Raya and the Last Dragon” are played by women and actors of Asian descent. The film takes an important step toward equal representation across gender, race and socioeconomic class in Hollywood, Tran says.
“I think something the movie does really well is recognizing that there are divisions between groups of people. And maybe we need to look at why those divisions exist,” she says. “So to me, it's really important to have a movie like this that is celebrating a part of the world that really isn't celebrated that often.”
Tran says she feels humbled by the experience of playing a role in something that will “outlive” her — mirroring her feelings around portraying engineer Rose Tico in the legendary “Star Wars” franchise.
Getting cast in “Star Wars” was a big break for Tran — but it also showed her the dark side of the fan base. Tran left Instagram after experiencing racist and sexist harassment from fans. In 2018, she wrote in The New York Times that “it wasn't their words, it's that I started to believe them.”
The world tells people they don’t belong through subconscious messages in the media, she says. These messages reinforce that women need to buy products such as mascara, for example, to feel beautiful and worthy of love.
Tran says she’s spent the last three years learning to recognize that she’s enough as she is.
“All of these lies that we're told, I think that it takes practice and constant fighting to remind yourself that sometimes it's not you that's the crazy one,” she says. “Sometimes it's the world around you.”
And for Raya and Sisu, the pair learns to trust people who have wronged them and persuade others to do the same in order to overcome their differences. People need to hear this message right now, Tran says.
“I think the message of this movie [is] about trust, about unity — about trying to look past the pain and the trauma that we've experienced in our lives and to take a step toward fighting for believing in a better world,” she says.
This segment aired on March 3, 2021.