Disney’s “‘Raya and the Last Dragon” is set to hit theaters in China on March 5, the same day as its release on Disney Plus in other territories.
It ranks among the first foreign titles to announce an upcoming release date since the Wednesday conclusion of the Chinese New Year holiday — the country’s top movie-going week of the year, and a period when authorities impose an official blackout on foreign imports.
China is one of the few countries where Disney currently has no plans to release its streaming platform, given that the Chinese government requires those operating within its borders to abide by draconian censorship rules.
Promo for the film in China leans on the star power of 33-year-old Zhao Liying, who will be dubbing the main character, Raya, into Chinese. Posters feature her dressed like a princess amidst fairy lights and fronds in the forest green palate distinctive to the film. The costuming is suited to Zhao, who is best known for donning flowy traditional robes for roles in period fantasy drama TV shows like the recent “Legend of Fei.” She has also appeared in films such as 2018’s “The Monkey King 3” and the Han Han-directed “Duckweed.”
Nevertheless, she is currently ranked rather low on industry tracker Maoyan’s big data-informed list of the country’s top celebs, falling at 83 out of 100. “Raya” will mark her first time dubbing an animation.
In the main China poster for the film, Disney sought to reel in local viewers by deeming “Raya” “the new visionary original from the gold medal team of ‘Frozen.’” The “Frozen” series is well-known to local audiences; it grossed $48.2 million there in 2014 while its sequel earned $122 million in 2019.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” tells the story of a young girl who must go on a quest to find a dragon in order to unite the five diverse clans of her fictional land of Kumandra, a place Disney said is inspired by Southeast Asian cultures from China’s neighbors Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
In English, the film’s voice cast features “Star Wars” standout Kelly Marie Tran, who is of Vietnamese descent, and a host of other stars of East Asian descent — Awkwafina, who is Chinese- and Korean-American, Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians,” who is of Chinese descent, and ethnically Korean A-listers Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh.
The casting has been met with some blowback online from critics who say that while they are happy to at least see Asian-looking faces on screen, Disney missed the opportunity to cast actual ethnic Southeast Asians in the film their disparate cultures supposedly inspired. The grab-bag approach to extremely different regional cultures has also been subject to raised eyebrows.
“A friendly reminder that actual Southeast Asians are not thrilled for Raya and the Last Dragon. They basically put the whole region in a blender and hired so little [sic] Southeast Asian actors for the roles,” wrote one commenter on Twitter, which is blocked in China. “This movie represents no one in particular.”
It remains to be seen how Chinese movie-goers may or may not react to issues of representation concerning cultures not directly tied to their country’s own Han-dominant one.
Disney’s “Mulan” was widely criticized in China last fall for incongruously mashing together elements from vastly different time periods and Chinese geographical regions. It underperformed against expectations in the territory, which was nonetheless the mostly straight-to-streaming’s most money-making globally for theatrical sales, bringing in $40.7 million despite cinema capacity restrictions due to COVID-19.
“Raya” is co-written by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”), who grew up in Malaysia. It is directed by Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” “Moana”) and Carlos Lopez Estrada. Despite initially planning a theatrical release, it has since shifted to digital distribution in most territories due to COVID-19.
Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6” grossed $83.8 million in China back in 2015 and is well-known to families there, with the image of its cute big, white robot continuing to be popular in a way that’s almost detached from the original film. “Moana” fared less well, bringing in just $32.8 million.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” meanwhile, was a flop in the world’s largest film market, where many movie-goers found its portrayal of Asians stereotypical and offensive. It earned only $1.6 million — less than one percent of its North American gross.
Watch the trailer for “Raya and the Last Dragon” below.