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Raya and the Last Dragon, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker may have been burdened with wrapping up the storylines of countless characters within George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, but looking ahead the massive blockbuster also gave way for its newcomer stars to launch exciting careers at lightspeed after Episode IX. For instance, Kelly Marie Tran is now on her way to Disney animation royalty in the studio’s upcoming release Raya and the Last Dragon.

The animated movie announced at last summer’s D23 already features Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina alongside the record-breaking romantic comedy’s co-writer Adele Lim. Disney has now revealed that the Rose Tico actress will play the lead Raya, replacing Degrassi actress Cassie Steele in the voice role. Raya and the Last Dragon is currently conducting its production remotely, with its animation reportedly 50 percent underway ahead of its 2021 release.

31-year-old Kelly Marie Tran is making history as she becomes the first Southeast Asian actress to receive top-billing in a Disney movie. The fantasy epic centers on her Raya, the daughter of the chief of the fictional kingdom Kumandra – she must leave her home behind, alongside her armadillo-bear sidekick Tuk Tuk, to find the last living dragon, played by Awkwafina’s Sisu. Tran spoke about her Disney character to EW with these words:

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.

One of Raya and the Last Dragon’s directors Don Hall called the upcoming release the “most beautiful animated film I’ve ever seen,” following his work on Moana and Big Hero 6. The filmmakers also including Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins promise high-octane action sequences, comedy and heartfelt moments. Here’s how López Estrada described Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya audition:

I'm never going to forget it. I think [Don Hall and I] rode in the car together, and we were quiet, looking at each other and nodding our heads just being like, ‘Yep, yep, yep. Kelly's perfect’... she is Raya — just her buoyancy and her positivity, but yet there's a strength as well to Kelly and the character.

The Star Wars actress impressed the Disney filmmakers with her comedic timing, but also her abandon to the film’s emotion, that will somehow reflect the current state of the world, per the directors. López Estrada also hyped up Tran’s role by describing one scene they changed during production thanks to her work on the film with this anecdote:

We had this little dramatic moment; it was written as a few lines. And I remember her going, ‘Hey, I have some ideas because this is normally how I would say this or I have some questions. Do you mind if I tried it a little bit differently?. She went for it, improvised for a minute, and had us all in tears. We changed the scene and reblocked the animation so that it would follow what Kelly did that day because she just clicked on something that was so much bigger than anything we had imagined.

Although the animated project has been in the works at Disney for years, production really began rolling in March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down other projects from the studio. Raya and the Last Dragon has been able to functionally be produced through video calls and remote work. The movie was originally expected for this November, but has since shifted to its current release date on March 12, 2021.

Disney also announced today that the official release date for next summer’s Pixar movie, Luca will hit theaters on June 18, 2021 along with confirming other theatrical dates. Stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more movie news.

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