In recent years, Disney’s animated films have moved away from films that focus on romance for their female leads. Films like Moana, Zootopia, and Big Hero 6 had little interest in romance, and on the surface, the same seems to be true of Disney’s latest animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon. However, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the title character and newest Disney princess, stated that she voiced the character intending there to be romantic feelings between Raya and her female rival, Namaari.
In the interview, Tran states that when she was voicing Raya she decided there were “some romantic feelings going on there” between Raya and Gemma Chan’s Namaari. In Raya and the Last Dragon, Raya and Namaari meet when they’re both young kids and it looks like the two are about to start a new friendship. But Namaari tricks Raya, which starts a rivalry that lasts for years after. When the two meet throughout the film, there’s definitely a chemistry between the two, and the sly comments made by both Raya and Namaari seem to hint that there may be something more between the two.
Tran continued to say, “I think if you’re a person watching this movie and you see representation in a way that feels really real and authentic to you, then it is real and authentic.” Tran also stated that this might get her in trouble with Disney, but Tran seems to shake off worrying about what the studio thinks. But as the 59th film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Raya and the Last Dragon seems to be the most overt example so far of queer representation, especially since Tran admits that was her inspiration.
While Tran will admit that she intentionally voiced Raya to have some attraction to Namaari in Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney has had a rough time trying to have queer representation in their films. For the last decade, Disney has tried, but seems like they’re trying to please one audience, while not alienating another. The result is half-hearted attempts at inclusion that seem like desperate attempts rather than dedication to inclusivity.
In the last few years, Disney has tried and failed with all their major studios to have queer representation. In Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, there was the slightest hint that LeFou, played by Josh Gad, was gay. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker featured two women kissing in the background. Onward quickly referenced a female cop’s girlfriend. Maybe the most egregious was Marvel’s promise that Avengers: Endgame would have the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first gay character, only for it to be a character in one scene who is never seen again. It seems as though if Disney is going to have queer representation, it will have to happen without their knowledge, like in Raya and the Last Dragon.
But it’s about time that Disney embraced queer representation, yet Disney realizes doing so in a major way could influence their box-office. For a studio that distributes its films throughout the world, and with many causing an uproar over Beauty and the Beast’s smallest reference to a gay character, it becomes clear that Disney is afraid of what making such a massive step would do for their big titles. At least Kelly Marie Tran attempts to bring some of that representation to Raya and the Last Dragon if Disney won’t.