Have you heard? There’s a new Disney animated film poking its head over the horizon. Deadline reports that Adele Lim has been tapped to write off of the success of Crazy Rich Asians. Most of the details are still under lock and key, but we know for sure that the lead character is female and that there will be “an Asian story element.”
I think there’s enough information in this little bit of news to allow us to make an educated guess about what the plot of this movie will be. Disney has had a string of successes with animated films in the “Disney Princess” line of properties that feature strong female protagonists. Crazy Rich Asians received acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its diversity, and featured strong female leads as well. It stands to reason that Disney has hired Lim to write a Disney Princess animated feature. This is a good, strong move for Disney make. Investing in creators like Lim sends a strong message about the importance of diversity, and what better way to double down on that than by bringing her on for a movie about empowering young girls?
There are three other named individuals attached to the project: Osnat Shurer, Paul Briggs, and Dean Wellins. Shurer has previously produced Moana (2016), and Briggs was head story artist on Frozen (2013), both films that featured Disney Princesses. Moana was praised for the work put into cultural research, so it stands to reason that Shurer was attached to the project for this reason. While Briggs’ and Wellins’ names are a bit more obscure, they are both noted artists and producers with a handful of rather prestigious credits. Briggs’s first credit is on Avatar: The Last Airbender, from which he would graduate to Disney TV cartoons and, eventually, full features, with 2014’s Big Hero 6 as his most recent credit. Wellins has numerous animator and story artist credits since the 90’s, all of which indicate his steady rise through the industry. This film is actually their directing debut; perhaps a test from Disney leadership to see if these guys have what it takes to handle an original?
These details paint a picture of Disney preparing to trot out something big, and I think the cultural zeitgeist is right for another strong role model for young girls. There is a lot to be said about the problematic implications of classical princess stories, but you can’t deny that Disney themselves have been very active in trying to change those perceptions. And Asian folklore has plenty of alternative stories to reach for in search of inspiration.
Chinese myth includes the story of Jingwei, the little girl who transformed into a bird determined to fill up the ocean, one stick at a time. Japanese folklore tells of Princess Kaguya, the girl from the moon who was born from a stalk of bamboo. I’m not as familiar with particular stories from Korea or Southeast Asia, but there are similar elements in stories throughout Asian folklore that appear in various ways. I would definitely be interested in seeing a modern take on one of these traditional stories, and I think Disney’s got the money and influence to do them justice. The line between respect and cultural appropriation is a fine one, but I’m interested to see where this project, sparse though details may be, will go.