As the world becomes more comfortable with streaming first-run blockbusters at home, Walt Disney Animation Studios graces us with their 59th fully animated feature film, Raya and the Last Dragon. The rousing tale of a princess seeking to right her greatest mistake, Raya is a fast-paced, whimsical adventure packed with wonder, Southeast Asian touches, and a timely message.
In the mythical kingdom of Kumandra, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, Hellboy, TV’s Hawaii Five-0) of Heart is training his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, The Last Jedi) to be a guardian of the dragon gem. According to legend, the gem contains the combined powers of the world’s dragons, freely given 500 years ago to protect mankind from the Druun, a malevolent force that turns living beings to stone. When a betrayal at a gathering of the human nations results in the dragon gem shattering, its pieces are scattered throughout Kumandra. In the years that follow, Raya’s quest to retrieve the missing pieces will lead her to discover the truth behind the legend of Sisu (Awkwafina, Ocean’s 8), the last dragon.
The Disney Princess Comes of Age
As much as characters like Moana or Frozen’s Anna are (rightly) praised for upending the traditional Disney princess model, Raya and the Last Dragon takes it a step further. Unlike the majority of her animated peers, Raya isn’t consumed by an all-encompassing need to prove herself or defy tradition to follow her heart; when we meet her six years after the prologue, she is broken, driven by the guilt she feels at having caused her people’s fall to the Druun. We’ve seen lots of Disney princesses over the years, but never one pushed so far into desperation off the bat. But even as Raya works to undo her greatest failure, she absolutely will not be defined by it. Much like the original Mulan, the character’s desire to save her father (and, by extension, her nation) in no way eliminates her capacity for empathy. Performance-wise, Tran, like Ming Na Wen (The Mandalorian) before her, persuasively straddles the line between compassion and badassery.
Myth and Magic
While fairytales have been Disney’s stock and trade for over eight decades at this point, Raya leans more in the direction of Moana than, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in its narrative and cultural leanings. Written by Qui Nguyen (the playwright behind Alice in Slasherland) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), the film draws from any number of influences to tell a story of the strength that comes from standing together. What the film puts up in terms of art direction, it trades for subtlety — Chief Benja spells out the moral of the story in the first ten minutes — but it doesn’t feel entirely preachy. Maybe it’s a sign of the times we live in, or the fact that common sense concepts are becoming increasingly less common, but the film’s message feels relevant and timely in a way that’s very much welcome.
Keeping in line with the theme, the film’s biggest villain isn’t the formless Druun, but the characters’ fears and prejudices. As Raya and her crew come together, the value of their fellowship is self-explanatory, and with nearly-nonstop action and humor propelling the plot forward, this hero’s journey may be familiar, but it’s never boring.
Whether it’s the buck-toothed, slant-eyed feline in The Aristocats, or the happy slaves of Song of the South, Disney films haven’t had the best track record with regard to cultural representation. Admittedly, this is a situation they’ve actively been trying to remedy, and Raya stands as their latest effort in that direction. As far as these things go, it’s pretty solid, with great effort put into depicting the unique cultures of Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Unlike the overly-sanitized (to the point of blandness) Mulan remake, Raya and the Last Dragon’s political correctness never gets in the way of its creativity.
Warriors, Weirdos, and Misfits
With perhaps the exception of the 101 Dalmatians, Raya and the Last Dragon has more cute and/or fun side characters than any Disney flick before it. Ranging from a con artist baby and her three simian(-ish) accomplices, a giant armadillo/hedgehog hybrid, a congee-slinging kid with a boat, and the impossibly-fluffy Sisu herself, it’s a merchandiser’s dream come true. What’s impressive is, the film not only justifies most of their inclusions, it makes them integral to the plot – nobody is here as window dressing.
Cute, cuddly characters (and Raya herself), aside, the film’s breakout stars are Tong (Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong), a sassy, one-eyed warrior with a heart of gold, and Namaari, (Gemma Chan, Captain Marvel, Crazy Rich Asians) daughter of the Fang chieftess (Sandra Oh, TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Killing Eve). Of the two, Namaari is, by far, the more complex, with her being forced to question her indoctrinated hatred of the Heart people. There are a lot of people calling this film, Avatar: The Last Airbender, by way of Disney, and we mean it in the best way possible when we say that Namaari’s arc is a big part of that (though time will ultimately tell whether her undercut ages better than Snow White’s singing voice).
Southeast Asian Origins
After raising the visual bar with Frozen II, the team behind Raya go above and beyond to create some of the richest animated environments ever seen in a Disney film. Each nation is presented with its own distinct culture — from the architecture, fashion, and food, to the people themselves, an inordinate amount of work was devoted to making Kumandra a living, breathing world. Everywhere you look, the animators have taken the trouble to fill the screen with recognizable artifacts of Southeast Asian culture, and it’s simultaneously jarring and fascinating in the same way that the “live-action” Lion King strived to create authentic, photoreal animals — only to have them talk and sing.
Representation for Representation’s Sake?
Naturally, the fact that Kumandra’s individual nations are fantasy versions of clearly Southeast Asian countries is the nit that some have chosen to pick, questioning why they aren’t just represented outright, a la Beauty and the Beast’s France, or Mulan’s China? Truth be told, given how many things Disney has gotten wrong over the years (twice, in Mulan’s case, and let’s not start on Pocahontas), it’s probably for the best they chose this route. In any case, it’s nowhere near as racist as the vaguely-Middle Eastern Agrabah (either version), and nobody’s yet complained that Rapunzel’s native kingdom of Corona (yikes) be more specifically “European”, so it’s probably best to just let this one go. In any case, here’s hoping that the day when such concessions will no longer be necessary arrives sooner, rather than later.
The Bottom Line
More self- and socially aware than anyone could have expected from a mainstream release, Raya and the Last Dragon is a promising step in the right direction, not just for Disney, but mainstream Hollywood in general. By balancing earnest humanity, an inclusive storyline, and engaging characters with eye-popping animation, it would seem that — pandemic or not — the House of Mouse has lost none of its power to put magic on our screens.
Have you watched Raya and the Last Dragon? Tell us what you think of it in the comments!