Estrada was the emerging director needed to bring a fresh perspective to Disney Animation. The problem is that directing animation is different from directing live-action features. His inexperience quickly showed, and veteran director Don Hall was brought in to give the fresh face on-the-job training. Raya and the Last Dragon was Estrada’s first and last Disney project, as he would return to directing music videos.
The other curious move by Jennifer Lee had to do with writer Adele Lim. I’m just speculating here, but was Lim now being targeted by Lee because she was a Lasseter hire? What was the reason for bringing in a second writer? Lim was now forced to share writer credit with Lee’s new recruit, Qui Nguyen, whose credits to this point were a handful of television episodes as a writer, but mostly staff writer credits.
The addition of Nguyen begs the question, why would Lim, coming off a $239 million success with Crazy Rich Asians, need to share a writing credit (and paycheck) with a relatively inexperienced television writer? In my humble opinion, Disney decided to take a talented and studio-proven Asian woman and reduce her to a mere “diversity hire.” After Raya and the Last Dragon, Lim left Disney to write and direct her feature films, including Joy Ride (2023). Her co-writer Qui Nguyen would go on to write and co-direct the 2022 Disney flop Strange World.
Women in Animation
From here, Raya and the Last Dragon turned from being a traditional Disney animated production to slowly transforming into Disney’s first DEI test case. Step one was to load the entire project with female South Asian animators and talent from within the company, then female Asian animators, then female POC animators, and the rest. But that wasn’t enough. Rather than pull in other artists from within, a major recruitment push was made to hire more women from outside the company to reach a 50/50 male/female balance for equity’s sake.
“…not enough as an animator to be a talented female person of color; you have to be ‘WiA-Approved’ and toe the line.”
A concerted effort was made to think “outside the box” when recruiting at Disney. During The Female Lead‘s Filmmaker Panel for Raya and the Last Dragon, head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn stated that Disney had decided to change the landscape of its hiring pool, which was once art school graduates, from such stalwart institutions as CalArts. She states that new talent emerged from millennials like herself on social media. In her own words, “Traditionally, where [Disney] would go to really expensive colleges where not everyone may be able to afford that. Now, that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. You know, maybe the company can look at how they can hire outside of their usual norm or hire internationally.”
Disney Animation did go out of its norm in hiring with the help of Women in Animation (WiA), an advocacy group created in 1993. Their mission states, “We envision a world in which people of all gender identities share fully in the creation, production, and rewards of animation…” With Raya and the Last Dragon, that aggressive push for Gender Equity and to radically transform an industry starts NOW!
Sources tell us that with Raya and the Last Dragon, the goal wasn’t to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion into the existing community of Disney animators but to replace it with a radicalized group of female activists completely. One female POC animator contacted us about her experience with WiA to further her career in animation. She was looking for mentorship and resources to break into the industry. While initial discussions were cordial, she was quickly ghosted by the organization because she did not live in Los Angeles and could not be helpful to their cause.