‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ explores uncharted Disney territories in a deep and surprising way

March 19, 2021

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is action-packed and thought-provoking. The movie’s central theme of trust and its premise featuring a plague renders the film as truly a product of its time—despite the film being set in what seems like an ancient mythical civilization and asking deep, timeworn questions such as, will we ever truly understand each other? Though it hits deep, it was funny a lot of the time too. Most exciting of all though was the fact that Raya looks like me.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is notably Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess movie and features an all-Asian American cast. The writers themselves are Southeast Asian, and the representations of Southeast Asian cultures, including Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Malaysian, Filipino and Indonesian, are respectfully done. I can’t believe there’s finally a princess who not only looks like me but comes from a similar Southeast Asian culture. At the start of the film, I couldn’t stop weeping over it finally happening, that Disney has acknowledged our existence.

Although the approach of the film highlighting different parts of Southeast Asian cultures was careful and thoughtful, Kumandra is an amalgamation of all these countries and seems to diminish the individuality of each of these nations. There is a variety of Southeast Asian landscapes, garments, food, colors and architecture. They included the Filipino martial art Arnis and some Vietnamese words a non-speaking viewer has to look up. Even though it seems Disney has done an amazing job with representation in this film and the world-building, it does seem like an amalgamation of a whole region of nations, which is often less seen in Disney princesses that are clearly from a specific cultural group and feels similar to “Agrabah” in “Aladdin” in encompassing a whole region of nations into one city. 

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess of her own making. After years of losing loved ones to Druun—the embodiments of the plague wreaking havoc on her world—she has the goal of making Kumandra, the once united world, return. Their world has five tribes that make up the dragon’s body: Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine and Talon. Raya sets out to find Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, and finds her at the end of the last river she’s searched. Although her rival, Nemaari from Fang (Gemma Chan), intervenes once Raya finds the dragon and tries to restore the world.

Sisu and the dragons represent trust and the hope of one day understanding and caring for one another. The film begins with a plague, which immediately likens the villain, the formidable “Druun,” to COVID-19.

We all know what a plague feels like, and how many humans have fallen to the plague since last year, but this one turns people into stone—a process only reversible by finding the last dragon and uniting as a whole.

It seems so natural for the dragon’s personality to be a goofy, pure-hearted yet powerful creature played by the hilarious Awkwafina. Her lighthearted, casual demeanor paired with being this mythical legend allows us to see Sisu’s humanity. She believes in trusting people, and when encountering others on their quest, she suggests to Raya, “why don’t you give them a gift? A gift says, I trust you, do you trust me?” Sisu’s faith in humanity’s goodness is stronger than that of any human on the show and highlights the way your cynicism gets in our own way sometimes. Sisu advocates for trusting each other. 

One of the most emotional revelations in the film was that Sisu was there because her siblings trusted her to save the world. Trust is a central theme that brings them all together, and it provokes introspective thought. In one scene, Raya says, “The world is broken. You can’t trust people,” and Sisu responds with “maybe the world’s broken because you don’t trust people.” The film sneaks in bits of wisdom that seem to come to the audience as a warning, a cautionary tale of what happens when we don’t trust each other, and the darkness that festers as a result. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a princess movie for the modern age, one that feels fitting for the time and yet timeless. I would definitely watch more Disney movies that are culturally sensitive and diverse that probe deep, significant ideas. You can stream it on Disney+ with premier access or when it becomes available to all Disney+ subscribers in June 2021.

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