Susan Behrends Valenzuela
Disney +’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” introduces Disney’s newest warrior princess, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), and the mythical kingdom of Kumandra. In a melting pot of influential media and sociopolitical messaging, Disney presents the story of a lone dragon rider named Raya who is determined to save her homeland from an evil force known as the Druun. Despite her strength and willpower, she can only complete her mission by putting trust in her sidekick Tuk Tuk and the band of misfits she meets along the way.
Kumandra is a beautiful land where dragons and humans coexisted until the Druun turned dragons to stone and caused a deep fracturing among people. When a conflict in one of the divided homelands breaks the gemstone that once defeated the evil, the Druun returns. Raya’s only hope of stopping it is to seek the help of the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), in hunting down the pieces of a gem that mends reality.
Infused with myriad cultural inspirations, “Raya and the Last Dragon” feels like one of Disney’s most novel films to date. The film takes place in an unspecified part of Asia and consistently makes references that honor its heritage. Each character has a distinct look from different parts of Asia that remove the generic “Asian” stereotype. Each of the five lands clearly takes inspiration from real places, such as one that depicts a version of the iconic floating market in Bangkok. This allows a pan-Asian influence to shine through in the film.
Aside from the settings, “Raya and the Last Dragon” also borrows ideas and imagery from other pieces of media (some with a pan-Asian influence as well), including the creature designs of “Spirited Away,” the divided-lands dynamic of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the elaborate quests of the Indiana Jones series and perhaps even a little “Game of Thrones.” How could you not see the parallels with Daenerys and her dragons in Raya and Sisu’s relationship, which is both a partnership and a maternal bond?
The movie’s cultural and cinematographic influences alike connect back to the central theme of unity in the face of darkness, meaning ‘The Druun’ in the film, but a polarizing political climate in reality. As a result, the blending of all these different ideas is a representation of the real-life need for us to come together as a nation.
On the other hand, the story is not nearly as impressive. The plot has several cliche moments, specifically in a way it addresses unity and trust. Trust is presented in a contradictory manner throughout the film. Sisu trusts the Chief of Talon, the evil leader of one of the other nations. She almost gets turned to stone by the Druun only to end up being saved thanks to Raya. Raya cannot trust Sisu after being betrayed early on in the film, it almost ends in her losing her friend forever. These conflicting messages make it extremely unclear what Disney says about trust and its role in society. At times in the film, Disney demonizes it, and then the finale takes on a wildly different approach; it feels like Disney is saying that you have an obligation to trust anyone, even when they have not earned it.
It is important to note that the handling of trust as a theme is directly connected to Disney’s ambition to create the modern empowered princess as a direct contrast to the “old” Disney Princess who relied on a man. We’ve seen this warrior/adventurer female lead in “Moana,” “Frozen,” “Zootopia” and even “Wreck-it-Ralph,” which all promote the idea of the strong, self-assured woman, who therefore has no need to trust anyone. “Raya and the Last Dragon,” with an almost entirely female cast, certainly shows this new side of Disney that celebrates different types of women as opposed to the traditional damsel-in-distress that the company has become known for.
What is particularly interesting (and controversial) about these characters is how they embrace what is traditionally viewed as masculine energy: they are always tough, unemotional, unromantic and less relationship-oriented. One could even argue that this film says a lot about how power and strength are defined through a problematic view of masculinity in animated features.
In the past, the ‘Prince’ has been defined exclusively through his ‘toughness’ and inability to show fear: he is the savior, never he-who-needed-to-be-saved. As Disney attempts to establish its female characters as independent, they have only put their female characters in the same position as their male characters, as opposed to creating a new breed that they believe to be ‘different.’
In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada make an effort to point out the problems with this definition of strength, which is why the characters’ relationships and the emphasis on trust are so significant to the film’s plot. Their use of trust is a way to soften Raya and even describe her counterpart, Sisu, as the yin to her yang.
Raya and Sisu act as two sides of the same coin: both intend to save the world, but go about it in radically different ways. Raya has been hardened by her previous betrayal and the loss of her father — because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a dead or absent parent — causing her to become pessimistic and paranoid. Conversely, Sisu is blindly optimistic, believing her own kindness and generosity will help everyone come together. Awkwafina’s quirky and distinct voice shines brightly through the adorable blue creature, establishing her as a beam of light and a consistent source of positivity throughout the film.
It is rare seeing a slow, emotional moment in the film. “Raya and the Last Dragon” consists almost entirely of constant action, which leaves many of the themes left to be developed. Less is more is usually the most effective approach in conveying the moral lesson that Disney always makes it a goal to instill. The combination of action, awkwardly-placed humor, a massive cast, pan-Asian influences, film references and unclear central themes leads to a less-than-seamless final product.
While the film may not be perfect, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a welcome addition to the Disney collection. Its contemporary character arcs and modern take on familiar stories of morale and friendship are masterfully done. The film could have used some more comedy, clarification and perhaps some self-reflection, but even so, “Raya and the Last Dragon” lights the path for a bright and diverse future at Disney.
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