'Raya And The Last Dragon' Official First Look Released; Kelly Marie Tran Cast In The Lead Role

Walt Disney Animation has unveiled the first look at Raya and the Last Dragon. The upcoming fantasy-adventure animated film has only teased gorgeous pieces of concept art until now, but today, we finally got to see the Raya and the Last Dragon first look image in its fully-rendered CG glory. Along with the release of the new image, Disney has announced the casting of Kelly Marie Tran in the lead role of the Southeast Asian warrior princess Raya, making the Star Wars: The Last Jedi star the first Southeast Asian actress to lead a Disney film.

Raya and the Last Dragon First Look

Entertainment Weekly debuted the first look at a fully-rendered Raya and the Last Dragon, and revealed the first news about the casting of Kelly Marie Tran in the lead role. The image shows Raya and her trusty steed Tuk Tuk, which is described as a fuzzy bear meets "an insect version of an armadillo." Raya and the Last Dragon follows Raya and Tuk Tuk as they leave their Heart Lands home to track down the last dragon to help stop the villainous Druun who threatens the fictional kingdom of Kumandra.

Tran is taking over the role from Canadian actress Cassie Steele, who was initially cast when the animated film was announced last year. But it appears that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected the film, which had to "quickly reshuffle" to work remotely with production ramping up in March just as the pandemic hit. However, it seems things have changed for the better, as Tran took over the lead role after an amazing audition that left the film's directors, Moana co-director Don Hall and Blindspotting filmmaker Carlos López Estrada, in "stunned silence." Playwright Qui Nguyen is also joining Crazy Rich Asians scribe Adele Lim as co-writer.

Walt Disney Animation Studios' Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee said in a statement to EW:

"As filmmakers, Don and Carlos bring a combination of animation know-how and emotional storytelling to Raya and the Last Dragon, bringing our fantasy adventure to surprising, original, and dynamic heights. They both saw the potential for this film and had a strong vision for the story, especially for our lead character, played by the wonderfully talented Kelly Marie Tran. And no small feat, directors Don and Carlos, writers Qui and Adele, and the entire crew of 400 Disney Animation artists are making this film together, while separated and working from home."

Despite the challenges of working from home, Hall teased that they've managed to create what he calls "the most beautiful animated film I've ever seen." Raya and the Last Dragon's concept art certainly promised that, and the first image lives up to that hyperbole. As if the beautiful imagery wasn't enough to get us excited, the film will be Disney's first film inspired by Southeast Asian culture, which the filmmakers said they worked hard to accurately represent, drawing influence from Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines through research trips to the countries, collaborations with visual anthropologists, as well as screenwriters Nguyen and Lim's own experiences.

"To have the artists who represent those cultures in there to be able to give the subtleties of what our families are actually like, what our relationships are actually like, has given a lot of nuances to this great adventure," Nguyen said.

It helps that Tran is one of the few major Vietnamese actresses working in Hollywood right now, with her casting in Star Wars: The Last Jedi catapulting her into the spotlight. She hasn't received the roles that she's deserved since, but playing a Disney "princess" in Raya and the Last Dragon is definitely a start. Tran said of her character:

"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. Raya is totally a warrior. When she was a kid, she was excited to get her sword. And she grows up to be a really badass, gritty warrior and can really take care of herself."

The animation on the film is currently 50% completed, according to Hall, which is pretty impressive considering the creative team has done most of their work remotely amid the pandemic. At this rate, the team will be able to reach the scheduled release date of Raya and the Last Dragon on March 21, 2021.