Raya and the Last Dragon is an uplifting and hopeful movie that emphasizes unity and trust. Following on the heels of Moana, Disney Animation expands its cultural perspective by finding inspiration from Southeast Asia for its latest action-adventure-fantasy, and newest Disney Princess.
The story, written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, transports us to the fictional fantasy land of Kumandra. The land is divided into five after a sinister monster called the Druun brought devastation to humanity and the dragons. After a selfless act of bravery from the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), Kumandra was saved but has remained divided for the last 500 years. In the land of Heart lives warrior princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father Chief Beja (Daniel Dae Kim). Together, they protect a sacred gem left behind by Sisu, which holds the power that drove the Druun away. When dark intentions cause the Druun to return, it is up to Raya to find the last dragon and restore peace to their lands.
Firstly, it must be noted that on paper (and in the final images as well), Disney Animation has done what it needed to do in order to create a fantasy that is both immersive and feels authentic to the cultures it is inspired by. Unlike prior attempts such as Aladdin and Pocahontas, which liberally took its inspirations without any respect in honouring and applying those inspirations with care, Raya and the Last Dragon aspires to be better. From the character designs, costuming, production design, and sound design the film makes a clear effort to create a distinctly fantastical world that derives from the cultures it borrows from. It is leaps and bounds ahead of Moana, which had a minimal approach to its representation of Polynesian culture. The film spent little time with Moana with her people, and quickly whisked her away on an ocean-set adventure. In comparison, Raya and the Last Dragon is fully immersed in depicting a fully realized world with direct cultural practices, architecture, landscapes, food, manner of dress, and more as the basis for the identity of each piece of land that makes up Kumandra. The fact that this is not a musical also aids the film in presenting a more substantive depiction of Kumandra, which was largely inspired by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Due to the work done to create an immersive space and environment based on real-world places and cultures, it allows for the fantasy, as written by Lim and Nguyen, to settle into the nuances and feel truly steeped in both the fictional and real parts of Kumandra. The story about Raya’s brave journey to rid her world of an evil that brings great darkness to the land her father wishes to see united, is filled with hard lessons and personal growth. The core of the film is based on the idea of trust. Trust in your family. Trust in your friends. Trust in the future. Trust in your nation and neighbours. The film can be distilled into this one core theme, and it is one that very much reflects what we truly need in the world right now. What is so amazing is that while it remains true to the film’s inspiration, it touts very universal experiences and themes that resonate with all. Prior Disney films often sacrifice cultural specificity with universality when they are not mutually exclusive. In addition to a heartfelt story, the film is a well-paced and exciting adventure that packs a lot in every single frame.
The film also carefully navigates any insensitive portrayals of its characters and the regions they hail from with a more nuanced approach to its story. No one individual is a “villain”, rather there is a collective behaviour and attitude that contributes to the sad state of affairs that they are all guilty of. The Druun are a malignant source of evil, but Raya’s journey doesn’t necessarily engage directly with that. Her journey involves overcoming fear, hate, and prejudice. The film also subverts expectations with certain characters presented in a manner that suggests shortsightedness but are given characteristics that essentially make up for contributing to stereotypes (although, the film does have an odd choice or two that will certainly affect people depending on their level of investment in the film’s representation of Southeast Asia). However, the film is still doing that thing they’ve been guilty of for years, which is creating worlds that are an amalgamation of cultures. Raya and the Last Dragon shows a distinct effort in balancing what is inspired and what is a direct representation of Southeast Asia, but it doesn’t let up on the fact that this is a fantasy.
Oddly, while the film does have the benefit of Asian screenwriters, Thai artist Fawn Veerasunthron as the Head of Story, and the collective of consultants which formed the Southeast Asia Story Trust, the film still has two non-Asian directors. Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall. Hall has been a longtime fixture at Disney, recently directing Big Hero 6, and co-directing Moana. Estrada, a Mexican-American director, takes on directing duties for the first time at Disney, which is definitely a choice. Both individuals certainly do their part in the execution of the film, but Disney is still not entirely without the means of hiring Asian directors, especially individuals from Southeast Asia. For many who watch the film, that critical choice will go unnoticed, but for those who care for the equality of opportunity, especially in this case where one’s identity is of relevance, it seems like an odd move to make.
At the heart of this film is the voice ensemble, led by the incomparable Kelly Marie Tran. Tran has a distinct voice that many who are fans of her work will immediately pick up, and it is filled with such emotion and depth that it is easy to envision Tran at the mic recording her lines. By nature and by design, Tran is a perfect choice to play Raya. She carries with her the confidence and strength of a warrior, and the kindness and sincerity of a classic Disney Princess. Joining the journey are a slew of talented Asian actors (although not all hail from Southeast Asia). Awkwafina lends her voice for the goofy young water dragon Sisu, pairing her unique brand of comedy with a sincere portrayal of a noble spirit. However, it is tough to fully accept her in the role of Sisu. Although she does a fine job, it is rather off-putting to hear her slip into her much criticized “blaccent” throughout the film. Gemma Chan voices Namaari, Raya’s adversary who has her own challenges. Chan sheds her British accent and is hardly recognizable, which makes one wonder why enlist her and not someone with ties to any of the numerous cultures and nations that inspired the film. Maybe someone like Elodie Yung could have taken on the role of Namaari. The same could be said of Awkwafina, but considering the number of projects Disney has hired her for, it is safe to assume that Disney is deeply invested in utilizing her quick rise to superstardom. The rest of the ensemble each prove valuable in their respective roles, Daniel Dae Kim as the kind-hearted Chief Benja, Sandra Oh as Namaari’s fierce mother Virana, Benedict Wong as the seemingly rough Tong, Izaac Wang as the delightful Boun, and Thalia Tran as the little con baby Noi. Of course, no Disney joint is complete without Alan Tudyk, who voices Tuk Tuk, Raya’s best friend, the giant armadillo-pill bug hybrid.
The theme of the film is about trust, and with that trust comes unity. It is an idea that is so relevant to our world, especially relevant to our history as humans torn apart by distrust, and the prejudice that comes with that. Raya does not sacrifice much to make the film more palatable to non-Asian audiences, although it still very much fits within the parameters of a Disney movie. Palatable is their motto after all. Just as Raya must learn to trust, it is also on us to trust that Disney can only improve from here. Also, Disney should learn to trust in the talent they claim that want represented, half-measures won’t cut it forever.
Raya and the Last Dragon is ambitious and promises a lot, and it truly does deliver. It is an exciting action-adventure that delves beautifully into the fantastical elements of its story. The film is filled with colourful and inviting images of an imaginary land that is inspired by parts of our world that deserve the best of depictions of both their land and their people. What brings this all together is the heart and soul given to this project by all the talent of Asian descent that worked on this film, and their avatar Raya, voiced wonderfully by Kelly Marie Tran. Tran brings together all the hard work and effort that brought this film to light, and it truly does come together because of her. Raya and the Last Dragon cannot be the vibrant and exciting adventure that is without an exceptional talent like Kelly Marie Tran.
Raya and The Last Dragon opens in theatres and will be available to stream on Disney+ on March 5.
by Ferdosa Abdi