Raya and the Last Dragon Review

Writer Anh Hang shares her thoughts on the latest Disney movie, one that takes inspiration from Southeast Asia.

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Disney

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the main protagonist of the story, joined by Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon in Kumandra.

Anh Hang

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s most recent princess film, following Moana and Frozen 2, and they have yet to break this streak of more dense and action-packed princess films. These modern princesses have far more complex messages and minimal romantic subplots. The story is set in the fantastical land of Kumandra, in which magical dragons reside and bring to its people water. However, when Druun, a purple and black plague that is essentially a physical manifestation of the worst parts of humanity, begins turning people into stone, the dragons are forced to step up. The dragons do all they can to stop the Druun. However, all but one dragon, Sisu, ends up turning into stone. Sisu is left alone to create a powerful gem that single-handedly saves humanity, and she disappears.

 Five hundred years later, instead of coming together to celebrate the dragons’ sacrifice to save people, humanity, like it so often does, divides. They fight with one another over who gets to own the gem under the false pretense that the gem grants prosperity to the land that owns it. Kumandra changes from a unified kingdom into five separate regions, each with its own distinct culture. Raya, the princess of the Hart faction, is entrusted to become the next protector of Sisu’s magic gem and carry out her father’s dream of bringing Kumandra together again. After trusting the wrong people, however, Raya learns there is a long way for humanity to go before unifying once again. 

I went into this movie with very low expectations. After Mulan (2020), I was beginning to doubt Disney’s ability to give a meaningful representation of Asian culture. However, to say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. I really enjoyed this movie upon first viewing, as I’m sure many will. It is a perfectly good Disney movie, one that is somewhat generic but definitely entertaining. 

 To begin with, the animation is simply stunning. There were moments in this movie where I teared up just because of how pretty some of the settings were. There were many moments that made me feel the magical feeling Disney is supposed to make me feel. All of that compiled with an exhilarating score from James Newton Howard really gave me the sense of wonder that I felt recent films were lacking. Nevertheless, It definitely nailed the atmospheres of the bustling night markets in Vietnam or the grand castles of Cambodia.

The characters are hilarious. Disney movies tend to have this awkward humor where the timing is always slightly off or they resort to slapstick, but there are some really charming sidekicks. The idea of a con baby that knows martial arts and has monkey sidekicks is hilariously ridiculous, but it works so well. Raya is a really fun main character. She’s snarky and brave, even if a little closed off. All of the characters have this wonderful dynamic of a group of misfit outcasts who all have hearts of gold. The only problem I have with the main crew is a lack of development. Yes, one may say that they needed five main characters, as I don’t think the ending would have worked as well as it did without them. In the end, though, none of the characters felt like they had a strong arc. I didn’t feel as attached to them as I did with Olaf from Frozen or Maui from Moana

The best part of this movie was Raya and Namari’s rivalry. The pure aggression and betrayal that courses through each of their interactions are so exciting to watch. Raya is extremely unforgiving and cold to Namari in the beginning, and rightfully so. Raya entrusted Namari as a kid with showing her the path to Sisu’s gem, and six years later humanity lives in fear of the Druuns because of Namari’s betrayal. Raya lost her dad because of this betrayal. It is interesting to see how Raya internalized this experience so deeply. Her trust issues may be a little superficial, but they are totally valid. If trusting the wrong people led her to lose everything, then how could she ever be vulnerable to someone again? The build-up and angst throughout the movie lead up to extremely satisfying and thrilling fight scenes, each one expertly choreographed after ancient Filipino martial arts techniques. The fast shots and flashy kicks aren’t what make them good though, it’s the way we truly feel for Raya. We know how much she has lost and how much this fight means to her.  

Objectively, this is a good movie–a great movie even. The message of trust could’ve been more subtle, and it would benefit from more developed characters, but it has a strong moral and interesting lore. Disney also has been priding itself on its first Southeast Asian princess and having good representation: it is written by Vietnamese American Qui Nguyen and Malaysian American Adele Lim. Raya is voiced by none other than Kelly Marie Tran, a beloved Vietnamese American actress who is known for her role in Star Wars the Last Jedi. Fawn Veerasunthorn, who is Thai-American, led the artistic direction as Head of Story. However, there was much controversy in the Southeast Asian American community when the rest of the cast was released. The most notable controversy is the lack of Southeast Asian actors in the cast, as well as the approach of combining influences from multiple Southeast Asian countries into one story.

As a half-Vietnamese, half-Cambodian woman, I feel that I have to address the central question: is Raya a good representation of Southeast Asia? Where is Disney going wrong? Why is it that movies such as Coco seem to have extremely positive receptions from Mexican viewers (with it reaching number one in Mexico’s box office) whereas Moana and Raya sparked controversy? The more obvious answer is Disney’s insensitive Maui costume, which many claimed to be a borderline brownface, and the lack of actual Southeast Asian representation in the casting of Raya. But when I went into this movie, I didn’t know about any of that. I didn’t know that the castles were supposed to resemble Khmer palaces, or that the fight scenes were choreographed after Filipino martial arts, but I felt it. I went into this movie knowing nothing, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I recognized from my own culture. 

I loved the addition of Tuk Tuk, which reminded me of the Thai three-wheeled motor vehicle used as taxis. I loved how often we saw the plumeria flowers, which are grown at my local temple. Raya is very clearly a beautiful Southeast Asian woman, with tanned skin and a flat nose. I could see myself in her. Still, I was left perplexed when I finished the movie. I felt that there was something missing. The movie was good, but it didn’t touch my soul the way I wanted it to, the way the first Southeast Asian Disney princess movie should have. I realized then that I don’t know what you could learn about Southeast Asian culture from it. 

The thing about Coco is that the story is very distinctly Mexican. The strong values of family and music, combined with the Dia de Los Muertos aspect of it make it impossible for Coco to be set in any other culture. It is a Mexican story, and it needed to be set in Mexico. I feel like I learned more about Mexican culture in every way. The story really brought me in and gave me a sense of wonder and curiosity for a culture I otherwise would not have known much about. Even Mulan (1998), which was not received nearly as well as Coco in China, resonated a lot with young Asian American women. The story is distinctly Chinese: the folk story of Mulan was something my grandma (who is Chinese) grew up listening to. The value of bringing honor to your family and ancestors is a central part of Chinese culture, and it makes the audience it’s supposed to represent (Chinese Americans) feel represented in a very special way. Raya, however, could really take place anywhere. After all, it is a typical quest to find the pieces of a puzzle. I could see this story take place in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are pieces of the story like the con baby which is inspired by Filipino folklore, and the idea that dragons bring prosperity and protect humanity. Those, however, could just have been replaced by other mythologies. The theme of trust, though very important and not unique to American culture, feels more like a political statement in this current climate. There are so many interesting Southeast Asian folklore tales that this movie could have modeled after, and I wish it did.

I’ve watched this movie four times to write this article, and it gets better each time. Is it worth 30 dollars? No. Wait until June. Nevertheless, it’s charming, action-packed, and absolutely stunning. I can see myself revisiting it over and over again. A lot of heart and passion went into it, especially considering it was all animated during a pandemic. However, I think Disney still has some ways to go before they can truly pride themselves as an inclusive and unique storyteller.