I stumbled across a YouTube video the other day that posed a rather puzzling request. Name a major Hollywood movie where a lead actor or actress is Asian American (or Asian Canadian), does not speak with an “ethnic” accent, and does not utilize martial arts (or some other cultural trope). It’s harder than you might think. The first character I can think of is Harold Lee from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, played by John Cho. Upon further reflection, we might consider films like Okja and Better Luck Tomorrow.
As you might already know, May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States and Asian Heritage Month in Canada. In both cases, the goal is to celebrate the culture, traditions, history and contributions of this segment of the population.
Now, I’ve written about famous Asian Canadians before, but this whole conversation about Asian representation in mass media entertainment really got me thinking: where are the Asian characters in Disney and Pixar movies? If we look beyond the Elsas and Cinderellas and Snow Whites, who do we find?
At this point, I know next to nothing about this unnamed character other than what we see in the trailer below. She’s from the upcoming short Bao, which will play before Incredibles 2 in theaters later this year. All I can say is that the little dumpling/bun creature is excruciatingly cute.
After what might be the most heartbreaking opening sequence in Pixar history, Up turns out to be a rather uplifting tale (sorry, not sorry) about an old man and a Wilderness Explorer named Russell. While we’re never explicitly told that Russell is Asian American, he does appear to have Asian features and he’s voiced by Japanese-American Jordan Nagai.
Along with the rest of her Motonui people (and Maui), Moana offers a refreshing portrayal of a nonspecific Pacific Islander. Some of it is a little cliched — this is Disney, after all — but they did make an effort to derive inspiration from real cultures and real mythologies. There’s just no telling how far they’ll go!
Okay, I recognize that I’m trying to focus more on the “Asian American” experience, but we can’t talk about Asians in Disney/Pixar without mentioning Mulan. To my knowledge, this is the only Disney animated movie that actually takes place in China.
There was a lot to like about Big Hero 6, including some of the “blended culture” of the future city of San Fransokyo. Along with his brother Tadashi and supporting characters like GoGo Tomago, Hiro Hamada is depicted as just a regular guy. To be fair, the movie does have a character named Wasabi-No-Ginger, so there is that.
In making this list, I admittedly almost forgot about The Jungle Book entirely. Maybe it’s because the story is told from its jungle setting and I didn’t immediately put it in the context of taking place in India. You’ll notice that Mowgli doesn’t speak with a stereotypical “Indian” accent either.
Of the characters and movies on this list, Sanjay’s Super Team is the only one I really know nothing about. It was an animated short that played before The Good Dinosaur in 2015. In it, a young boy named Sanjay imagines Hindu gods as superheroes.
Before there was Moana, there was 2002’s Lilo & Stitch. The young Hawaiian girl from Kaua’i befriends the very strange extraterrestrial with very strange abilities, and the pair eventually bond as extended family. Lilo doesn’t really speak with an accent, but Stitch definitely does.
Some of the characters listed above have been accused of being “not Asian enough” (whatever that means), so I’ll leave that up to you to decide. Some people might have also included Aladdin and Jasmine from the Aladdin series. While the Middle East is part of Asia, I’m not entirely sure people from the region would really self-identify as “Asian,” just as someone from the Asian part of Russia might not call themselves “Asian” either. Feel free to correct me if you think I’m mistaken.
I feel like mainstream entertainment is slowly moving toward being more inclusive. The critical and commercial success of movies like Get Out and Black Panther attest to that. We just need to keep reminding Hollywood that we want to have more diverse stories with more diverse characters. Our cultural mosaic would be all the richer for it.