Kelly Marie Tran will bring the warrior Raya to life in Disney's animated film "Raya and the Last Dragon," replacing Cassie Steele, who previously held the titular role.
That makes Tran the first Southeast Asian actress to lead an animated Disney film — one that is also inspired by Southeast Asia. The picture has also named new directors, Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, who join "Raya" story artists Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins at the helm.
In a new look at the project Thursday, the animation studio showed the warrior flanked by her trusty steed Tuk Tuk against the dazzling backdrop of the fictional land of Kumandra.
It's unclear why the Raya role was recast, and a rep for Disney did not comment on the casting news when reached by The Times on Thursday. Reps for Steele, who starred in the "Degrassi" television series and is of British and Filipino descent, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
"Raya and the Last Dragon" was scheduled to be released in November but has been pushed back because of the global repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis. It's currently slated for release on March 12, 2021, and is one of the first Disney Animation features to be developed from remote locations as a result of the pandemic.
Directors Hall and Estrada were taken by Tran's comedy and ad-lib skills, and the level of emotion she brought to the role, Entertainment Weekly reported.
"I didn’t know that I was yearning just to see someone who looks like me,” the Vietnamese American actress told "EW," which first reported the recasting Thursday. “She is someone who is technically a princess, but I think that what’s really cool about this project, about this character specifically, is that everyone’s trying to flip the narrative on what it means to be a princess.”
Tran, 31, rose to fame in 2017 as rebel mechanic Rose Tico in Disney and Lucasfilm's "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." She made headlines (and quit social media) after a toxic reception from trolls online. Her screen time was slashed in last year's Skywalker saga finale, "The Rise of Skywalker," and the reviews accused filmmakers of pandering to fans.
Tran's voice at least will put her out front in "Raya" as Disney continues to redefine its erstwhile princess tropes in the vein of "Moana," "Ralph Breaks the Internet" and the "Frozen" franchise. The new film is set in the fictional realm of Lumandra — a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization. Raya is a warrior determined to find the last dragon. The film also stars comedian Awkwafina as Sisu, a dragon in human form, who needs Raya’s help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self.
"We keep saying [it’s about] sisterhood,” the "Crazy Rich Asians" star said at D23 last summer. “Raya — when we talk about Disney idols — she’s, as you would say, 'bad ass.'"
"Raya" will reunite Awkwafina with "Crazy Rich Asians" scribe Adele Lim, who is cowriting the animated film with Qui Nguyen.