sabine wren final

When It Comes to Turning Animation into Live-Action, Disney Doesn’t Always Get It Right

In honor of Star Wars Day, a discussion of the complicated way colorism shows up in the sci-fi franchise, particularly in a casting decision for the coming-soon "Ahsoka"

Words by Caroline Cao

Recently, the live-action remake of Lilo & Stitch announced a light-skinned Nani, causing discourse about how this change whitewashes her dark-skinned cartoon originator, erasing the original animated feature’s nuance about the present ravages of U.S. imperialism and racism upon Hawaii.

But this certainly isn’t the first time animations haven’t translated to live-action, and since there’s increasing popularity in film turning cartoon fantasy to reality, these kinds of conversations are vital. In fact, variations of the colorism conversation have even pervaded Disney’s fantasy galaxy far, far away.

Before The Mandalorian, the Star Wars franchise extended its canonical timeline in CGI animated series, starting with George Lucas’s 2008 The Clone Wars. Notably, Saw Gerrera (inspired by Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara) marked the first Clone Wars character who hopped into the live-action Rogue One movie and Andor series (Forest Whitaker, who voices Gerrera’s older animated iterations, while Saw’s voice originator Andrew Kishino continues to voice his younger iteration).

Sabine Wren in “Star Wars Rebels.”

Running from 2014-2018, the CGI Rebels cartoon (created by Dave Filoni) introduced rebel graffiti artist, explosive expert Sabine Wren, a dark-skinned human Mandalorian who is Asian-coded, complete with the stereotypical rebel Asian dyed hair. By the third season, her backstory unraveled a subtextual Asian American assimilationist narrative: When Sabine refused to conform to the Imperial hegemony, her tough-love mother banished her from the clan since they relied on the Empire for protection.

It wouldn’t be invalid to apply a Pan-Asian reading. Sabine isn’t necessarily narrowed to a singular coded identity. Other viewers might read Sabine as East Asian or Southeast Asian, or perhaps Japanese-coded (since her father is voiced by Japanese American Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).

Tiya Sircar does the voice of Sabine Wren in the “Star Wars Rebels” animated series.

David Livingston/Getty Images

But because colorism is a pervasive problem in the Asian American community, there are greater stakes in ignoring Sabine’s specific South Asian-coding, particularly through the casting of Tiya Sircar, an actress of Indian descent. This consistency played out in the majority casting of Clan Wren: Sabine's mother (Sharmila Devar) and brother (Ritesh Rajan) are voiced by people of Indian descent.

Then, Lucasfilm announced that Natasha Liu Bordizzo, a Chinese Italian woman, will don Sabine’s neon beskar in the upcoming live-action Ahsoka show, a follow-up to Rebels produced by Filoni. While Bordizzo is getting a possibly career-defining opportunity, she bears lighter skin color than not just Sircar, but also Sabine’s animated avatar.

This disappointed those who hoped Sircar could transition from voice to live (not unlike how Katee Sackhoff could reprise a Clone Wars character she voiced in The Mandalorian).

Several unseen behind-the-scenes factors can instigate a cast change. It’s almost freeing that the Star Wars canonical timeline can maneuver through animation to live-action, and therefore execute different dynamics of much-loved characters in the same continuity. Interpretations with new performers can enliven an existing character.

However, this particular Sabine re-casting highlights whitewashing. Surely, there was another South Asian actress who could manifest Sabine Wren in live-action. Instead, this casting left a colorist cognitive dissonance, an inadvertent message that a worthy Sabine in the flesh was a Sabine with paler skin.

This casting left a colorist cognitive dissonance, an inadvertent message that a worthy Sabine in the flesh was a Sabine with paler skin.

With varying results, Ahsoka has otherwise pursued a quasi-variation of race-bending where physical performers of color embody BIPOC-coded characters who were voiced by white actors. For example, Rebels lead Ezra Bridger, a conspicuously brown character, had a white performer (Taylor Gray) but will be played by Ecuadorian-Iranian Eman Esfandi in Ahsoka.

There is also a discussion centering on the titular Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), introduced in Clone Wars. A humanoid-horned Torgruta with tendrils, Ahsoka predicated Rey as an iconic female Jedi with onscreen prominence. After her appearance in the Rebels cartoon, The Mandalorian season two ultimately confirmed that Afro-Puerto Rican actress Rosario Dawson is carrying the torch. This irked fans who campaigned for Eckstein, a white woman, to reprise the humanoid in live-action. This opinion is hard not to understand. Might Eckstein have the talent? The answer may as well be “Yes, but…”

Ahsoka’s recasting has more to benefit with a BIPOC person because cartoon Ahsoka, an alien humanoid, is coded as a woman of color. First, her name resembles the Indian emperor Ashoka (in line with Star Wars borrowing Asian aesthetics). More than a decade after her debut, you can sense some casting hindsight played out. In the 2022 Tales of the Jedi animated anthology, we meet Ahsoka’s birth parents, both voiced by actors of Indian descent (Janina Gavankar and Sunil Malhotra).

However, the Togruta mantle would have been a greater boon for a lesser-known actress of color rather than Dawson. Also, this scratches the surface of a transphobic assault accusation against Dawson, and the current court dismissals don’t offer relief because it is difficult to trust a legal system that habitually fails the transgender community.

As two vastly different mediums, live-action and animation are fighting their own intersecting battles for diversity onscreen and behind-the-mic. Unlike live-action, animation has a curtain concealing the voice actors’ profiles. It would be convenient to dismiss the subject as, “This is animation, nor is this a culturally specific story, so what’s the need to see color here in casting for two-or-three-dimensional marionettes that aren’t literal humans (or are aliens)?” The colorist conversations also bubbled up on the vice-versa: live-action to animation. The recent The Bad Batch cartoons, sparked #UnwhitewashTBB over the complexion of whitewashed clone animated characters, who are supposed to be modeled after Temuera Morrison (a brown-skinned Māori actor) in The Attack of the Clones.

Literal humans or not, animated characters like Sabine represent humans on screen. Even sci-fi humanoids might represent “othered” humans. And when those animated characters are realized in the flesh, respect must be paid to their humanity. Transforming a dark-skinned Sabine into a fair-skinned Sabine makes the galaxy a less welcoming fantasy.

Published on May 4, 2023

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.