This week, Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access. The first Disney movie to take inspiration from Southeast Asia, Raya is the latest example of Disney’s growing commitment to telling stories about cultures that rarely get the on-screen focus they should.
The story unfolds in the fictional world of Kumandra, an ancient land of myth and legend. Once, the people of Kumandra were united as one great nation, but a great war against the malevolent Druun monsters saw the guardian dragons of the world sacrifice themselves to save humanity. Since the dragons’ disappearance, the people of Kumandra have split into five separate kingdoms as mistrust and suspicion grew between them: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Five hundred years later, the Druun have returned to wreak havoc on the land and Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the warrior princess of Heart, sets out on a quest to find the mythical last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), in order to save her father. Along the way, however, she learns that if she really wants to save those she cares about, she’ll have to let go of her mistrust of the other kingdoms and open her heart to cooperating with those she hates most, including Namaari (Gemma Chan), her rival from the Fang kingdom.
So how does Raya fare among Disney Animation’s movies? There are high expectations from the studio that brought us the Frozen franchise, Zootopia, Moana, and others. Here are three reasons to watch Raya and the Last Dragon, whether as safely as possible in a theater or from home when it releases this weekend.
1. It’s A Beautiful Homage To A Culture Not Often Explored In Film
Though Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a fantasy world, the cultural traditions and influences are steeped in the Southeast Asia of our world. It’s notable and necessary that Disney focused on this specific region of Asia; historically, when Hollywood has told Asian stories, the focus has overwhelmingly been on the fairer-skinned people and cultures of East Asia, specifically China, Japan and Korea. “Asian,” however, is not one homogenous thing, nor are Asians one homogeneous people. Each country and region has its own distinct cultures, religions, and customs; Southeast Asia alone is a beautifully diverse spread of humanity that deserves more recognition for the uniquely diverse culture it has.
The story itself may not particularly reinvent the narrative wheel – mythic tales rarely do, steeped as they are in the foundational blocks of storytelling – but reframing it in the context of Southeast Asia offers it a fresh twist, particularly for Western audiences who may not be as familiar with the cultures being borrowed from in Raya. The world of Kumandra is a gorgeous kaleidoscope, the Disney team having traveled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore for research. Respect for the various cultures incorporated resonates throughout the film (the South East Asia Trust & other experts were intimately involved as consultants).
A number of the broader elements in Raya are universal concepts among Southeast Asian. The story of Sisu was directly inspired by myths of water dragons found across the region. Likewise, the concept of community is a shared belief throughout. Food is an especially important part of the cultural bond and social fabric of Southeast Asia, and food is a theme woven throughout Raya, with a number of specific regional dishes featuring. The specific martial arts styles of the region were also blended together. Smaller, more culturally specific details are woven into the beautiful cultural tapestry of Raya, as well, such as the unique shape of Raya’s hat or the circular hand gesture the characters repeatedly make. The result is arguably the most richly detailed film about Southeast Asia ever produced by Hollywood, despite being a fantasy setting.
2. It Puts A Fresh Spin On Female Heroes
To its credit, Disney has done a much better job in the last decade of creating female protagonists who have agency and desires beyond being saved by a prince. Raya, however, might be the most complex Disney Princess besides Elsa, and precisely for the same reason: She has a personality rarely seen in Disney princesses, with traits often unacknowledged in female characters in general. For all her many strengths, Raya is also deeply flawed – this isn’t a bad thing.
Raya is a warrior, fearless, brave, and extremely skilled. But she’s also deeply cynical, her trust in others and faith they’ll do the right thing having been snuffed out years ago. Conversely, the dragon Sisu is full of hope and puts her faith in humans. In a narrative decision that is far more interesting and real than taking a clear moral stance, both Raya and Sisu are proven right and wrong throughout the film. Sisu is right – but also naive. Raya is right – but also too hardened. There are moments Raya’s lack of faith in humanity is justified, a surprising departure from Disney’s often too shiny-happy moralizing. Yet, at a crucial moment, Raya’s inability to give the benefit of the doubt to her enemy threatens to ruin everything. And there are times Namaari, framed as the antagonist of the film, shows more wisdom and open-mindedness than Raya, our heroine. Though the message of opening one’s heart and forgiveness is clear, certain scenes in the movie result in a more morally gray movie than one normally expects of Disney. To see female characters portrayed like this, with certain traits and abilities usually only granted to male characters, is entirely welcome and long-overdue.
3. It’s Stunning On Multiple Technical Levels
Before Raya and the Last Dragon, I thought Frozen 2 was the most gorgeous Disney Animation film I’d ever seen. Now it shares the title with Raya. Every single shot looks like a nature photographer’s carefully-framed landscape dream. Jungle backgrounds drip with heat and steam; rolling, barren sand dunes hiss in serpentine chorus through parched rock formations; the crisp chill of silent, ancient red maple forests leaps off the screen. Raya is as much a homage to the regional landscapes of Southeast Asia as it is to its people and culture, and locations are often lingered over with wide, panoramic shots to fully capture the natural beauty of Kumandra; the production and art departments deserve full credit for rendering the world of Kumandra in such loving detail that it feels like a world you can reach out and physically touch.
Raya and the Last Dragon‘s score also deserves accolades, as does composer James Newton Howard. The light, intricate score is deeply lovely and ever-changing; in a rarity, Howard rarely repeats musical themes. The music is punctuated with the instruments of Southeast Asia, shifting from the delicate dove’s call of a pan flute to heavy drumbeats. More modern synthesizer-infused music plays over the action-heavy scenes while choral work punctuated with plaintive female vocals floats through the more mythology-infused scenes. It’s a shame that Raya is opening just after the cutoff to be eligible for the 2021 Oscars as Howard’s work deserves a nomination for Best Original Score; still, that doesn’t detract from how beautiful it is.
Truth be told, Raya and the Last Dragon is perhaps some of the best work Disney Animation has ever done. The blending of rich mythology and action-packed martial arts sequences, of haunting beauty mixed with the trademark humor and cute sidekicks, elevates what has come before from the animation studio. Raya sets a high bar in a beautiful film that was well worth the coronavirus-forced delays.
Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, March 5.