Well this is a surprise. Buried in a “first look” image piece in Entertainment Weekly (see the image below) is some fairly shocking news about Walt Disney Animation Studios’ upcoming Raya and the Last Dragon – namely that the lead actress and directors have been replaced and a new writer has been added. What makes the news noteworthy is that this complete creative overhaul is being announced just a couple of months before the movie was supposed to be released (it’s now scheduled for spring 2021).
Now helming Raya and the Last Dragon are the team of Don Hall, a Disney Animation veteran who directed the beautiful 2011 Winnie the Pooh and 2014’s Marvel-based Big Hero 6 and co-directed Moana, and Carlos López Estrada, a new-to-animation filmmaker who last directed Blindspotting and whose development deal with Walt Disney Animation Studios was announced last fall. Hall and López Estrada will be replacing Dean Wellins and Paul Briggs. Briggs will actually stay on Raya, working as co-director alongside John Ripa while Wellins is developing another project at the studio (thank god). Both Wellins and Briggs are part of the creative hive mind known as the “story trust” that advises on all of the studio’s animated features (as seen in the recent, totally amazing Disney+ series Into the Unknown). From what I understand this change actually happened shortly after last year’s D23 Expo (where the project was officially announced and the first footage shown) and is just now being made public.
If that wasn’t dramatic enough, the lead actress Cassie Steele, who appeared on stage at D23 Expo to present the new movie and her character (a young warrior in an ancient, fantastical Asian land), has been replaced by the Internet’s sweetheart Kelly Marie Tran. This, too, has been the case for a while now. Awkwafina is still on board as the dragon Sisu. Additionally, playwright Qui Nguyen has joined to help co-write the script originally penned by Crazy Rich Asians screenwriter Adele Lim.
“As filmmakers, Don and Carlos bring a combination of animation know-how and emotional storytelling to Raya and the Last Dragon, bringing our fantasy adventure to surprising, original, and dynamic heights,” Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee said in a statement to EW. “They both saw the potential for this film and had a strong vision for the story, especially for our lead character, played by the wonderfully talented Kelly Marie Tran. And no small feat, directors Don and Carlos, writers Qui and Adele, and the entire crew of 400 Disney Animation artists are making this film together, while separated and working from home.”
Additionally, some new details about the plot emerged in between all of the news of the creative overhaul: “As an evil force threatens the fictional kingdom of Kumandra, the two must leave their Heart Lands home and track down the last dragon to help stop the villainous Druun.” Sounds good to us!
The presentation at D23 Expo last summer and the gorgeous test animation they showed was absolutely stunning. This truly looks unlike any movie Walt Disney Animation Studioos has ever produced – a full-throated, hugely atmospheric martial arts epic set in a unique fantasy world with some of the most amazing character and creature designs you’ll ever see from the studio (which is really saying something).
Raya and the Last Dragon, which Hall told EW was 50% finished (pretty good considering all of the setbacks), will be out on March 12, 2021. God willing.