In 1937, Walt Disney debuted something that changed the history of cinema — the release of the first full length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This in turn gave birth to Walt Disney Animation Studios and a long history (at times problematic) of classic stories and adventures involving dragons and princesses that has, for the most part, arguably withstood the test of time from generation to generation. But generations change. Art and time change the world and, in turn, the world and time must also change art.
Our expectations on the types of stories we can tell, and the cultural sources of those stories must evolve and expand, because life has become more complicated since 1937. And thus today (or rather this Friday), the world will see how far we’ve come since Snow White, when Disney introduces the world to it’s newest game-changer Raya and the Last Dragon. Now you’re probably thinking, “C’mon. Is it really a game-changer? How? Why?” And if you are thinking that, first off, that’s just rude (just kidding). And second, if you’ve been reading my reviews long enough I’m sure you’re used to my dramatic flair for hyperbole. However, to answer your question, yes. I believe it is.
Raya and the Last Dragon represents a princess movie that completely bucks the typical traditions of princess movies Disney is known for. It is a movie inspired by Southeast Asian culture, spirituality, and motifs, with a story primarily driven by Southeast Asian creatives. Similar to Moana, its emphasis is not on romance, but rather the action, though it is heavier on the action than Moana (in the coolest way possible). Its message is also much richer and more timely than your average Disney princess film. And lastly, it is not a musical (which I suppose some people may be disappointed with, but not myself). So yes. In the grand history of Walt Disney Animation princess movies, Raya is the first to owe more to films like Big Hero 6, Zootopia, How to Train Your Dragon and Atlantis The Lost Empire, than Snow White, Frozen, or Cinderella. And that makes it a first for the studio, and a huge reason behind why I loved the movie.
Raya weaves a beautiful, original story about a fictional kingdom called Kumandra, inspired by elements from Southeast Asian mythology. We’re told upfront the story of how Kumandra was once a paradise where humans and dragons peacefully coexisted. However, a devastating war with a force of monsters called the Druun ensued, and the dragons ended up sacrificing themselves by using all their magic to defeat the Druun. The extinction of the dragons resulted in Kumandra splitting into 5 different regions: Tail, Talon, Heart, Spine, and Fang. Over time the rivalries between the groups got more bitter, which ultimately results in the Druun coming back and dooming the world to the point where it becomes an apocalyptic wasteland. We then catch up to our hero, Raya (voiced amazingly by Kelly Marie Tran), princess of Heart, who realizes that if she can resurrect the legendary dragon Sisu, last of the dragons, Kumandra has a chance to defeat the Druun once and for all, and, even more importantly, become a unified nation again. So Raya goes on a quest to find Sisu and, along the way, forms a team with a collection of quirky characters who stand as Kumandra’s final hope against the Druun and mankind’s ultimate discord.
One of the greatest things about Raya and the Last Dragon is how unapologetically unafraid it is to be as thematically rich and complex as it is. Through the guise of this fable about dragons, martial arts, and swordplay is a movie that’s actually about the need for humans to trust one another for the sake of unification and beneficial coexistence. Similar to how Zootopia tackled themes of racism and fixing the messiness that exists in the world, Raya‘s message about trusting one another as a society is so relevant to a broken America, and one that allows us to reflect on ourselves and how we handle the challenges we’re seeing on the news everyday about racial, political, and social division. Whether audiences take the message and try to learn from it remains to be seen. But the sheer fact that Disney Animation is being ballsy enough to put a film out there that reflects the current problems we’re facing in society is something that merits admiration.
It also fully understands that people and life are complicated, and displays this through incredibly complex characters like Raya, but also her foil and rival, Namaari, a fierce warrior from Fang. Raya is hands down my favorite Disney princess of all time for a multitude of reasons. First, and most vapidly, she’s the Disney princess equivalent of Batman and Indiana Jones. She has a cool grappling hook/sword, a cool cape, a cool hat and mask; she’s essentially a ninja who knows martial arts; she’s an explorer; she’s really clever; she can sling out funny one-liners with brilliant charisma (thanks to Tran’s magnificent delivery and personality); and she has trust issues. All that makes her insanely cool and attractive as a protagonist! However, more importantly, Raya as a hero is also so humanly flawed and relatable. Every action, reaction, and choice she makes during the course of the movie are choices you can see yourself making. The aforementioned trust issues she has are completely justified, but she makes very big mistakes because of it. That said, as the film progresses she becomes a learning character; correcting, overcorrecting, and trying harder to become a better person by the end of the film. She reflects the conflicted emotions that we as viewers have in reality, but in the end becomes a better person and makes the choices and sacrifices we all should strive to make.
Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) represents the opposite side of the coin to Raya. She’s every bit as cool and skilled as Raya is from a warrior perspective (if not fiercer), but also angrier and more ruthless. She’s the reason Raya develops trust issues, but it’s simply because she’s understandably trying to support her people. The film smartly makes you realize that she and the people of Fang aren’t any worse or better than our hero Raya. And that deep down inside everyone, beneath the anger, fear, and mistrust we have of others, is the more difficult, more terrifying decision to do right by them for the greater good. Namaari’s struggles throughout the film and her final decisions are so well earned, that her parallel arc becomes just as important as the eponymous hero of the story.
Naturally you can’t discuss a film called Raya and the Last Dragon without discussing the last dragon. And Awkwafina gives a really warm performance as Sisu. From a story standpoint, Sisu is also flawed, but ultimately acts as a moral compass and symbol of undying hope in humanity. Throughout the movie the character, despite claiming her only skill is swimming really well, showcases that her true magic lies in her ability to instill hope in humanity to others. Despite a tragic backstory, and others’ attempts to do harm to her, Sisu continues to believe in the power of kindness and friendship, and tirelessly persists in seeing the best in people and in getting Raya to do the same. Thus the film makes her not only the key to fixing the world, but also the key to fixing Raya’s and Namaari’s broken faith in other people, and the catalyst for their larger character arcs.
Apart from Raya, Sisu, and Namaari, the supporting characters in the film are also equally charming and sympathetic. Rounding up Raya’s crew are kid boat captain/CFO/server/chef of the Shrimporium Boun (Izaac Wang) from Tail, toddler con artist Noi (Thalia Tran) from Talon, and her band of monkey-like thieving Ongies, and gentle giant Tong (Benedict Wong) from Spine. Without losing focus on Raya and Sisu, the film is able to develop these characters by showcasing how their individual losses due to the Druun’s plague on humanity have shaped them to become survivors, while also allowing you to see that they are hopeful, caring individuals, interested in doing the right thing for the greater good. In moments when Raya’s rage gets the better of her, the film makes sure to emphasize the kindness and rationality of her team, acting as a symbol of the potential goodness and harmony Kumandra could have if completely unified.
While the themes and development of complex, realistic characters may be Raya and the Last Dragon‘s main strengths, it is also elevated by spectacular world-building, action, animation, and a terrific score courtesy of James Newton Howard. From a world-building standpoint, Kumandra, and each of its different regions, are so incredibly fleshed out. Each unique environment encompassing the 5 different regions feels like a character of its own, much like the different settings/regions in Zootopia. And the details on each imagined animal in this world, from those in the backgrounds, like the Toot and Boom bug, to main creatures like Tuk Tuk, Raya’s pet, an armadillo-pill bug hybrid, have such vivid, creative designs to them. And they’re all pretty adorable. That said, the world building and character designs are nothing without the crisp and stellar animation within the film. For instance, there is a really breathtaking scene where Sisu gains the power to make it rain, then climbs on platforms made of raindrops and into the sky. It was gorgeous, colorful, and emotionally resonant, coupling with the soaring anthems of Howard’s epic themes. Though somewhat reminiscent of the flying scenes from the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, they’re still a sight to watch and unique enough for the film and mythology to retain its own sense of identity. Speaking of standout scenes, the movie is also incredible from an action standpoint. More than any Disney Animated film to come before it, the action scenes in Raya, particularly the fight scenes with Raya and Namaari, are insanely well choreographed and utterly exciting! They’re fast paced, brutal, and easily rival any lightsaber battle you could see in a recent Star Wars film. I’ve never seen Disney Animation do anything like this in the past and it just makes the movie so much more of a cool and unique entry in the Disney Feature Animation canon!
Now unfortunately, this being a review, as much as I want to gush about how much I love the movie, how good the story and themes are, as well as the action, music, and animation, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit it’s not perfect. There are actually quite a few flaws that, while not enough to ruin the movie, are enough for me to dock it a few points. Firstly, while the story is magnificent, I do think the screenplay needs work. As much praise as I have given the film for its incredibly mature, complex themes and well developed characters, I can’t deny that it’s actually incredibly heavy handed in execution. The theme of trust is such a great one to explore, but I dare you to take a shot every time they say the word “trust” in the movie, and not make it to the end drunk. For me, such an amazing message can stand on its own, and the movie does do a good job of showing its themes, but it also does a bad job of simultaneously and unnecessarily telling you blatantly its themes. Hence the heavy-handedness. A film with such strong themes shouldn’t need to remind you every other scene that your protagonist has trust issues, or that your dragon is an optimist that wants her to trust others. There are spectacular ways to convey change and growth in your characters without having them explicitly talk to each other about the need to change and grow. When you take a look at the aforementioned How to Train Your Dragon series as an example, the growth of Hiccup as a character from wanting to kill dragons to understanding and wanting to save them because of his earned friendship with Toothless is beautifully conveyed without the need for Toothless to speak at all. Raya and the Last Dragon constantly feels the need to remind you that Raya has to learn to trust in conversations between her and Sisu, which it doesn’t need to because it’s already showing you all of this. And while it doesn’t diminish the emotional impact or the earned conclusion of Raya’s evolutionary arc at the end of the film, it does sadly feel clumsy and preachy. More showing and less telling would have definitely benefited the film.
Also unfortunately, as incredible as Namaari is, and as incredible an actress as Gemma Chan is, she does not do as good a job portraying Namaari as Tran does playing Raya. There’s a lack of energy and gusto in what should be a very complicated and angry, but highly sympathetic and important character. We love Namaari because she is complicated, and the animation bringing her to life is amazing too. But we would have loved her even more if Chan’s vocal work was a bit less lacking, and that made me wonder what would have happened if they had casted a different actress in the part — perhaps a Southeast Asian one?
Which, I’m afraid to say, is sadly another flaw about a movie meant to provide a greater voice to Southeast Asians: the fact that some of the voices of its key characters are not the voices of Southeast Asians. Don’t get me wrong, actors like Daniel Dae Kim and Benedict Wong do great jobs from an acting standpoint in the roles of Chief Benja and Tong. But it does seriously feel like a wasted opportunity for non-Southeast Asian actors to take roles that are really meant to embody Southeast Asian characters.
Those flaws aside, at the end of the day, as a Filipino reporter, I am still grateful for this movie. Not just because it truly is a fantastic movie with a brilliant message, real characters, tremendous world-building, and ridiculously cool action (and I am very grateful for those things!), but also because of what it still means to the Southeast Asian community. From the lush green hills and luminous colors of the night markets that capture the settings the characters travel to; to the sacred, reverent spirituality in prayers/customs from multiple gorgeous scenes in the film; and even the food and style designs of the props, vehicles, and costumes used and worn by its characters; every inch of Raya and the Last Dragon contains Southeast Asian culture in its DNA. And it possesses and presents this in ways no other mainstream movie has ever captured on film, particularly in the history of Walt Disney Animation’s library. Speaking with other friends of Southeast Asian descent, I know that seeing this brought to life in such a beautiful way has connected with them so deeply, which is the most wonderful thing a movie can do. Kids of Thai, Malaysian, Filipino, Cambodian, and Indonesian descent, as well as kids from so many more countries, will now be able to grow up seeing something they’ve never seen before — a strong hero who looks like them leading a Disney movie, fighting to unite a divided world around them. And that is what makes Raya and the Last Dragon not only a gift for our community, and a spectacular film in and of itself, but ultimately a game-changer.
Overall Score: A-
Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ via Premier Access March 5! Please do everything you can to make this one a hit, because of what it means to the Southeast Asian community and because it’s just a wonderful movie!
And stay tuned to The Nerds of Color because later this week, we’ve got more Raya coverage coming, including an interview with Raya herself, Kelly Marie Tran!