is yet another magical and visually astounding film that draws in the audience with smooth animation, inspiration from a variety of Southeast Asian cultures and a wealth of emotions portrayed in a style that seems to deviate significantly from the classic princess movie experience.
The film stars Kelly Marie Tran as the lead role of Raya, a young warrior whose confidence and skill is evident, but deals with major trust issues, making her a genuine and flawed heroine. In opposition, we have Gemma Chan as Namaari, a character with antagonistic qualities, but proves to be far more complex than your classic villain. Awkwafina also joins the cast as the playful and awkwardly humored dragon, Sisu.
We are first introduced to a young Raya along with her father, the wise and loving chief, and the beautiful land they live in. We are also provided with the history of dragons and how the once-unified nation called Kumandra was split into five warring regions named after the body parts of a dragon: Talon, Fang, Spine, Tail and Heart.
The conflict becomes clear quite quickly when the magic gem protecting the world from the evil Druun, who consumes human life by turning them to stone, is broken into pieces and Raya must start her quest to bring peace to the world she lives in.
The film takes on the topics of trust, family and vulnerability in a truly artistic yet real way. The fantasy world is magical and beautiful, but showcases real problems like division among nations and the effects of distrust and greed that seem to come with human nature.
The complex themes and topics are intertwined with the diversity of both the setting and the characters. We are shown five specific regions with distinct populations, each drawn from a combination of Southeast Asian countries and cultures. These regions, and the characters that come with them, each provide a new perspective on the themes and create a sense of wholeness.
These regions play an important role, as Raya has to visit all five in her quest and maneuver through the challenges each region presents. This gave the studio an easy way to show the audience a diverse representation of cultures never seen before in Disney films, and while the representation may be quite broad, I felt that it was a great start to the much-needed inclusion of Asian culture and allowed for a lot of vivid cultural details that bring in an important narrative.
Speaking of representation, Raya is the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, and the film’s cast is made up of almost entirely Asian American actors and actresses.
Additionally, Raya is quite the unconventional princess. She is a warrior with intense trust issues and we see that her past has hardened her into a careful person, giving her an obvious flaw that we get to see developed throughout the film. Raya does not sing, wears realistic clothing that does not sexualize her and shows genuine anger and despair that fuels her journey. All these things make Raya an amazingly whole, realistic character and present a positive shift away from the timid princess that we so often see from Disney.
That being said, I also felt that the movie fell short in a few places. The lack of time spent in each region, the number of characters left stagnant and ignored and the extremely fast-paced plot made the movie feel thin, leaving me mildly disappointed.
While I still recommend watching the movie, I would suggest waiting until it becomes available to the regular Disney+ subscription, rather than paying the $30 premium access fee.
Overall, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a beautiful, enjoyable film that takes on the complex topics of human nature and trust, while also widening the diversity seen within mainstream media and I would absolutely recommend it to people of all ages.