Okay, you cannot laugh at me, but Disney did the damn thing with Raya and The Last Dragon. After the Mulan Mishap of 2020; Raya is a redemption arc I did not see coming!
Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws. But in 107 mins, Raya and The Last Dragon set up a beautiful story, a compelling conflict and a tear-jerking climax.
Trần Loan (also known as Kelly Marie Tran) as Raya does a phenomenal job bringing Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess to life. The inflection in her voice really brings you into the movie. You’re invested in Raya’s journey. Her quest to get back Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina, minus the forced AAVE) and save Kumandra from the dreaded Druun; hydrophobic entities that turn anything they touch into stone and ash.
Throughout the movie, we get to see the former paradise that was Kumandra as it is now. A fractured dystopia full of dust and distrust. The stark contrast between the vivid cityscapes and petrified world that lives right across the river serves as a reminder of what is at stake.
The relationships between the characters highlight this even more,
Raya, the cynic with a hardened heart, only cares, for one thing, her father’s return. But Sisu’s honesty and naivete push her and us to believe. To believe that even in the darkest of times, there is something worth fighting for; and that it’s a fight that can only be won if we believe in each other. Her unwavering faith wears away at Raya’s walls until she begins to trust others again.
Sisu’s recurring references to her siblings emphasize this even more. At the turning point of the movie, we learn why Sisu is the last dragon. That it was her family’s unwavering faith in her that protected Kumandra for as long as it did. The flashback is so compelling that even Raya’s walls start to weaken. She agrees to trust Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who betrayed her and cost her her father.
The movie even gives us a glimpse of Namaari’s motivations and truth. Showing us why Namaari made the choices she did. That just like Raya, she too wanted to save Kumandra. Just like Raya, she believed in her parent’s plan for the future. Unfortunately, Namaari’s mother, Chief Virana’s (voiced by Sandra Oh), greed and individualistic view nearly cost her daughter and the world everything.
As the story nears its end, our heroes choose to follow in Sisu and her siblings’ footsteps. Coming together because only together can they achieve real change.
Unlike other Disney movies that focus more on romantic or familial love. Raya and The Last Dragon comes across as a beautiful display of collectivism. The sentiment is peppered throughout the movie— with scenes like cooking and sharing a meal and paying respect to the departed together. But, the final moment where Raya introduces her father to the new Kumandra brings it home.
As a whole, the movie does a stellar job of representing the shared cultural experiences Asians go through. The pressures to live up to parental expectations, both positive and negative. The battle to overcome intercommunity prejudices. The importance of appropriately seasoned food! As a non-Southeast Asian Desi, even I can feel a kinship with all the characters in the story.
That being said, there are two glaring problems do take away from what would otherwise be a perfect movie.
One: as always, Disney paints the entire Southeast Asian subcontinent with one brush. At this point, it is an expected disappointment. The fictional land of Kumandra has five distinct tribes with no significant differences between them. The creative team could’ve just as easily picked five Southeast Asian countries and shown us their distinct cultures and practices, so it does come across as a missed opportunity.
Two: as always, Disney treats their actors’ ethnicities as an afterthought. We all know that there is a massive issue within the Asian community as a whole where light-skinned East Asians are the ones who get the bulk of the spotlight. Raya, unfortunately, is no different. The screen is full of representation for darker-skinned Southeast Asians, but the voices behind them? The majority of the cast is of Chinese or Korean descent. As far as I can find, Trần Loan is the only Southeast Asian actor on the cast.
There are other things I can nitpick. Like the complexities of inter-Asian relations and colonial history, but let’s not open that can of worms!
Overall, I give Raya and The Last Dragon a solid 7/10. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, and it may be the pandemic talking but, it does make me hopeful for the future of equity and inclusivity in Western media.