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Kelly Marie Tran cast as lead in Disney's 'Raya and the Last Dragon'

Awkwafina will star alongside Tran as Sisu, a dragon in human form who needs Raya's help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self.
Image: Kelly Marie Tran
Kelly Marie Tran arrives at the Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 4, 2018.Jordan Strauss / AP/Invision file

Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran is the new star of Disney's animated "Raya and the Last Dragon," an original fantasy film that is heavily influenced by Southeast Asian lore and cultures.

Disney also gave a first look at the movie about a computer-generated Raya and her trusted steed Tuk Tuk, whom the creators describe as "a fuzzy bear meets an insect version of an armadillo."

Tran takes over the role from Canadian actress Cassie Steele. The film is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, with playwright Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim on board as the writers.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" is set in the kingdom of Kumandra, where dragons and humans lived in harmony until Druun monsters invaded and forced the dragons to sacrifice themselves for humanity. The film follows Raya — part princess, part warrior — and her journey to find the last dragon to save Kumandra from evil forces.

Awkwafina will star alongside Tran as Sisu, a dragon in human form who needs Raya's help to reclaim her power and become her true dragon self.

Tran makes history as the first actress of Southeast Asian descent to lead a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie.

The creators and the studio wanted to accurately portray the Southeast Asian cultures they are picking up from, including countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. A Disney Animations rep said it formed a group called Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust, similar to the Oceanic Story Trust that was formed for "Moana," which includes anthropologists, linguists, dancers and gamelan musicians from Indonesia, among others. Production designers and other creatives also went to Southeast Asian regions to look at the designs.

Tran is best known for her role as Rose Tico in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (2017) and "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" (2019). Since the release of "The Last Jedi," she has been subject to much massive trolling and many racist insults on social media, and she deleted her Instagram profile in June 2018 following constant criticism in the comments over her race.

Prominent personalities, including her "Star Wars" co-stars Mark Hamill and John Boyega, came to her defense, along with several fans.

In August 2018, Tran wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about how she started believing the harassing comments.

"As much as I hate to admit it, I started blaming myself. I thought, 'Oh, maybe if I was thinner' or 'Maybe if I grow out my hair' and, worst of all, 'Maybe if I wasn't Asian.' For months, I went down a spiral of self-hate, into the darkest recesses of my mind, places where I tore myself apart, where I put their words above my own self-worth. And it was then that I realized I had been lied to," she wrote.

Now fans are celebrating Tran's evolution into a Disney princess on social media.

Comedian and writer Jenny Yang said in a tweet that she is "proud of my talented friend." Director Tze Chun applauded Tran as the first Southeast Asian Disney lead.

The film was ramping up production when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but the cast and 400 members of the crew — including Hall, López Estrada, Nguyen and Lim — have been working remotely during the year. The film is 50 percent animated already, Hall, the director, said in an interview with EW.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" is scheduled to release March 12.