Arts & Entertainment Editor
Major spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon ahead!
It’s about time we got another Asian Disney princess, and Raya herself didn’t disappoint. It’s been 23 years since Mulan (1998) was released, and for that time, young Asian girls only had one princess to look up to — and even then, Mulan was received as a caricature of Chinese culture. On March 5, the highly anticipated Raya and the Last Dragon was released on Disney+ with Premiere Access (yes, you have to pay $30 to see the movie now).
The world Raya is set in is beautiful and vibrant. The movie opens with Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) traversing the land as she narrates the history of Kumandra. Kumandra used to be a land of paradise and peace, protected by dragons until the Druun — mindless creatures of pure evil — came. The Druun turned everyone into stone, and the dragons? The dragons weren’t powerful enough to defeat them, except for one. Raya says that the mighty Sisudatu (Awkwafina) concentrated all of her magic into a gem and vanquished the Druun (for now). The people who turned into stone came back, but the rest of the dragons did not. Thus, the people of Kumandra fought to obtain the last of the dragon magic. Kumandra was split into five lands: Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail. But as Raya says, “That’s not how the world broke. That didn’t truly happen until 500 years later, when I came into the story.”
We are then formally introduced to Raya as she is training with her father (and eventually outsmarts him). A Disney princess that is introduced as being intelligent and an ass-kicker? Sign me up! The fighting sticks she used are called Escrima sticks, which is a weapon used in Filipino martial arts called Arnis. Raya and the Last Dragon takes influences from each Southeast Asian country, as screenwriter Qui Nguyen explains, “it was like a bunch of Easter eggs culturally for all of us to be able to go, ‘Hey, you find your culture in this movie.’” The sword Raya uses for the rest of the film was inspired by the Indonesian kris, each land has its own fighting style (such as Indonesian Pencak Silat, Muay Thai, and Vietnamese Võ thuật), there are shots of durian and dragonfruit, Raya offers bánh tét (a Vietnamese rice cake) to Sisu the dragon, the list goes on and on.
The story hinges on the fact that Princess Namaari from Fang betrays Raya’s trust and tries to steal Sisu’s gem. The gem breaks, and the land’s leaders steal a piece, further dividing Kumandra. The Druun gets released once more and turns Raya’s father into stone, along with many other people, and then the adventure begins.
As mentioned earlier, Raya offers bánh tét to Sisu in hopes she can aid Raya in her quest. Once Raya fills Sisu in on the mess she’s made, they head off to Tail to get the first piece. Namaari (Gemma Chan) follows the two around as they recruit a con artist baby, a young chef, and a distressed village chief. The biggest thing I enjoyed about the movie is the fact that it breaks away from the traditional Disney narrative of a princess being “good” and “innocent.” Raya’s motivations are very selfish; she’s only focused on getting her father back and rarely thinks about the implications of Kumandra’s division or the family members others have lost.
With each new person that joins Raya on her quest, Raya learns that they have also been affected by the Druun. Boun (Izaac Wang), the young chef, talks about how he can’t wait for his sister to ruffle his hair again, Noi (Thalia Tran), the con artist baby, is parentless because her mother turned to stone, and Tong (Benedict Wong), the village chief, lost his whole family. Raya becomes aware that what she’s feeling is something that’s been universally felt in Kumandra. She realizes that she can’t put the gem back together just for her father but for everyone else who lost someone. Sisu also helps Raya learn that Kumandra would be better together and that she just needs to trust the leaders (and not storm into their lands, stealing back the pieces). However, all this lesson teaching gets pushed back when Raya causes Namaari to shoot Sisu.
Yes, you read that right. Towards the last 30 minutes of the movie, Namaari and Sisu have a bit of a stand-off. Raya hopes that she can convince Namaari to give her the piece because they used to be friends (until Namaari betrayed her). Namaari meets Raya, and it seems like the piece is just going to be handed over willfully. However, Namaari pulls out a crossbow and says that she’ll be taking Sisu and the gem pieces back to Fang. Namaari’s mother said that if Fang had the pieces and the dragon, the rest of the lands would forgive Fang for starting this whole mess. Namaari hovers her finger over the trigger, as Sisu tries to rationalize with her. Raya doesn’t think Namaari will listen and she uses her sword to try and knock the crossbow out of Namaari’s hands. An arrow fires, pierces the middle of Sisu’s chest, and Sisu falls into the water. With the last dragon gone, the Druun can take over Fang.
Even with Fang being destroyed by the Druun in the background, Raya still has to pick a fight with Namaari. As Tong says, “Raya’s blinded by her own rage.” So, the three people Raya recruited took matters into their own hands to save the people of Fang. Eventually, Raya bests Namaari, but before any drastic measure can be taken, Namaari says that Raya is as much to blame for Sisu’s death as she is (all because Raya didn’t trust Sisu). Raya comes back from her rage to see that the people of Fang need her help, that she was too caught up in her own feelings to see that there’s a much bigger problem at hand. Raya takes Sisu’s lesson on trust and trusts Namaari with the gem pieces, then sacrifices herself to the Druun. Boun, Noi, Tong, and Namaari follow suit and sacrifice themselves to be turned into stone. The power of trust fuses the gem back together and vanquishes the Druun, this time for good. The movie ends with Raya reuniting with her father, the dragons coming back from stone (Sisu was revived somehow), and Kumandra becoming one again.
Raya and the Last Dragon has a strong heart, with a family-driven narrative and a story built on trust, but I can’t deny the apparent representation issues with the movie. Many Southeast Asian critics and audience members have pointed out the problem that Raya cherry-picks certain aspects of each Southeast Asian country and combines them into one country, Kumandra. As Hoai-Tran Bui says in her review, “Seeing a familiar dish and hearing a familiar word doesn’t have quite the effect as recognizing a family dynamic onscreen.”
Each culture is treated as an Easter egg in the film, but the incredibly diverse Southeast Asian culture shouldn’t be treated as such. The movie tries to embody the entirety of Southeast Asia, which is incredibly hard to do because Southeast Asia is composed of eleven countries. I understand that the writers, Vietnamese-American Qui Nguyen and Malaysian-Chinese Adele Lim, wanted to capture the essence of their culture (which I can’t deny was visually done well), but fell flat in that grand endeavor.
Bui made a great point in her review that Raya lacks the specificity that was done in Pixar’s Coco — it should’ve focused less on Easter eggs and more on family dynamics. I would’ve liked to have seen more on the dynamics between Raya and her father and Namaari and her mother. I also would’ve liked to have seen more on the bond between Raya’s ragtag group; they all lost family, and it seemed like they were starting to find family in each other, but it was never fully explored. Shirley Li of The Atlantic says in her review, “In Raya, the world doesn’t so much serve the story; the story twists itself in knots trying to serve the world,” and she’s right. Again, Raya is all about Easter eggs and doesn’t entirely intertwine the story with the culture. It’s like if you understand the reference, great! If not, then you’re left out.
Another issue is that of the main cast, only one of them is Southeast Asian. Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran is fantastic as Raya, but in a movie that’s based on Southeast Asia, you’d expect the casting to reflect that. The rest of the main cast are of East Asian descent, which perpetuates the idea that the only Asians are East Asians and that “all Asians are the same.”
There are plenty of Southeast Asian actors and actresses in Hollywood and some with major credits under their belt (ex. Dave Bautista, Lara Condor, Michelle Yeoh). Yes, it’s great that Southeast Asian kids have a princess that they can look up to, but we also need to hold Disney accountable for, once again, doing the bare minimum (especially considering the fact that Disney+ isn’t available in Southeast Asia). With Mulan (2020), there was an all-Asian cast with Chinese actors and actresses playing the main roles, but the production team was predominantly white. Despite being a Chinese story, Disney made the choice to only have surface-level representation. The same case can be seen with Raya, as Southeast Asian culture is being treated as references and the casting seems lazy.
All in all, Raya and the Last Dragon was a visual treat. The lands of Tail, Fang, Talon, Spine, and Heart were all so vibrant, beautiful, and diverse. I would’ve seen the movie in theaters just for the visuals. Raya herself is a flawed princess; seeing her emotional growth throughout the movie was refreshing, and watching her fight made me fall in love with her character. She’s hardheaded and selfish, but she’s also going into a world that she was never able to fully explore because she was confined to Heart when she was younger.
While Raya seems like a step in the right direction, it falls short on Southeast Asian representation; it tries to bunch together the eleven countries but fails by making it surface-level representation and fails to be inclusive in its casting.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of Forbes / Disney