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'Raya And The Last Dragon' Criticized For Lack Of Southeast Asian Actors

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The animated feature film "Raya And The Last Dragon" has been praised for celebrating Southeast Asian culture. It's now in theaters and streaming on Disney+. The lead character Raya is introduced as Disney's first Southeast Asian princess.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON")

KELLY MARIE TRAN: (As Raya) Now, in order to restore peace, we must find the last dragon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Some critics, though, have called Disney out for casting only one actor of Southeast Asian descent in a prominent speaking role - Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya. Those roles mostly went to actors of East Asian descent. Hoai-Tran Bui is a critic with Slashfilm.

HOAI-TRAN BUI: Most of the reaction I saw online was praise and general positivity from Southeast Asian critics, although a few have voiced the same criticisms I have towards the film's melting-pot approach, and even more are unhappy with the casting choices. It mostly goes into the issue of treating Asians as a monolith, no matter which country they come from. And there is a distinction between East Asian countries and Southeast Asian countries.

MARTIN: We reached out to Disney about the casting issue in particular, and they put us in touch with a co-writer of the movie, Adele Lim. And we've got a clip of her response. Let's listen.

ADELE LIM: Any time that there is a prominent Asian-forward movie or we have Asian leads, you know, that one project has to kind of take on the burden because there's just not enough of them. Particularly for "Raya," we just feel so lucky that we have the actors that we have, who have just connected so deeply and so meaningfully to their parts.

MARTIN: So what do you think? It sounds like she's setting the bar sort of low so they can celebrate it when they surmount it.

BUI: Yeah, and this is an issue that is muddy even among the Asian American, Southeast Asian American communities. "Raya And The Last Dragon" is billed so heavily as that first Southeast Asian-inspired Disney animated movie, so it feels like a large missed opportunity to not cast the main voice cast with Southeast Asian actors, aside from Kelly Marie Tran.

MARTIN: Can you compare that to the situation with white actors? I mean, English actors play Americans all the time, right? Scots play Russians. Australians play Israelis. Can you explain how this feels different?

BUI: It has to do with the different experiences that Southeast Asians may have had in the U.S. versus East Asians. There is the stereotype of jungle Asians that a lot of Southeast Asians have had to deal with - the Vietnam War-type of imagery; the idea that Southeast Asians, because they have darker skin, are lesser than East Asians. And yet they have not been afforded the same visibility as East Asians, but they suffer from similar prejudices.

MARTIN: If you set aside the casting, what did you make of the rest of the movie?

BUI: I actually really enjoyed the movie. You can see various parts of Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysia and Laos culture that are sprinkled throughout the film. Those were really exciting and really wonderful to watch, even if I had my own drawbacks with its representation, mostly because I think that at this point now, when we're seeing more Asian stories being told from the East Asian-Southeast Asian perspective, we don't need those crumbs anymore.

MARTIN: Hoai-Tran Bui, film critic for Slashfilm. Thank you so much.

BUI: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GABAY")

KZ TANDINGAN: (Singing in Filipino). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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