What’s new, everyone? We’re continuing to live in the period where any variation on “Here’s the update on COVID-19” remains a common phrase in the news, along with “Here’s the report on America’s history of anti-Asian discrimination and violence.” In the meantime, we can enjoy Raya and The Last Dragon, the Disney Princess animated feature that hit theaters (please don’t congregate with other moviegoers in those confined spaces quite yet) and the Premium Access section of Disney+ on March 5, and will be free for all subscribers on June 4. The first animated Disney flick since Frozen 2 in November 2019, it takes place in Kumandra, a fantasy realm influenced by the cultures of Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Thailand. Humans and dragons once peacefully coexisted in this country until a plague of purplish-black smoke creatures known as the Druun invaded it to turn them to stone. Sisu (Awkwafina) is said to be the sole dragon to escape this fate and gather the magic of all the dragons into one gem that was able to vanquish the Druun. The majority of the narrative unfurls five centuries later as the young warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) embarks on a mission to restore harmony to Kumandra by tracking down Sisu and the gem (the latter which has been split into five shards and spread across each of the divided country’s five lands: Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart).
Directed by Don Hall (co-director of Big Hero 6 and 2011’s Winnie the Pooh) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, the 2018 drama starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal), and written by Qui Nguyen (the play She Kills Monsters, Netflix’s The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), Raya hits the mark in multiple ways with its dazzling visuals, strong voice cast, female-centered storytelling, vivid worldbuilding, and exploration of the theme of trust. They compensate for the conventional and derivative qualities of the plot, which follows Raya as she treks across Kumandra with Sisu and a few other quirky allies they pick up along the way in a fetch quest for the gem’s pieces.
Disney and Pixar are the two powerhouse studios for whom I hold a high standard when it comes to animation quality. That’s why it isn’t surprising that Disney tops itself in Raya, a movie where the water, the dirt and sand, the dragon fur, the costume design, and plenty of other jaw-droppingly gorgeous details pop off the screen. Some of the set pieces are so lifelike that I might mistake them for real-world locations if the animated characters were removed. The animators put just as much effort into instilling the fight sequences with a compelling sense of physicality that feels palpable and solid.
Tran (who recently displayed her voice acting chops in last year’s The Croods: A New Age) is a perfect pick for the heroine, her vocal performance bringing to life Raya’s boundless ferocity, heart, and duty, along with her struggle to forgive and put faith in those who betray her. Disney really did Tran dirty in Star Wars, casting her as Rose Tico and proceeding to send her off on an extraneous subplot alongside John Boyega’s Finn that completely wasted both characters in The Last Jedi, then giving her three or four measly minutes of screentime in The Rise of Skywalker. So I’m glad the Mouse House atoned for its error by choosing Tran to play the latest Disney Princess—a role that has been legendary for decades and continues to retain gravity in media, particularly as the concept of what it truly means to be a Princess slowly but surely evolves in our social consciousness. Side note: Cassie Steele from Degrassi: The Next Generation was originally going to play Raya, but the character was recast due to creative changes that were made to the story.
Awkwafina, whom I find to be hilarious, has a distinct presence akin to Dwayne Johnson and Jim Carrey. This is why I wasn’t sure as to whether I’d be able to watch Sisu when she first showed up without constantly thinking of Awkwafina and being taken out of the story. Fortunately, this is a case where the movie designs a character’s personality around the trademark energy of the actor portraying it, then meshes the performance with the movie’s preference for goofy comic relief. It helps that Sisu, rather than having to compete for the audience’s attention against a dozen other dragons, is the only dragon we see in a prominent role, giving us the space we need to connect with her boisterous disposition.
The supporting players also include Gemma Chan as Namaari, the warrior princess of Fang and Raya’s archenemy; Daniel Dae Kim as Chief Benja, the chief of Heart and Raya’s father; Benedict Wong as Tong, a Spine warrior giant; Izaac Wang as Boun, a smooth-talking 10-year-old Tail boy who runs his own boat restaurant; Sandra Oh as Virana, the chief of Fang and Namaari’s mother; and Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, an adorable mix between a pill bug and an armadillo that Raya keeps as a pet. I do wish the cast did a better job with the Southeast Asian representation. Aside from Tran, who is Vietnamese, most of the actors are East Asian. A particularly glaring misstep comes up when we meet the Talon chief in the second act and hear her speak in a pronounced Chinese accent that contrasts markedly with Southeast Asian dialects. I suspect Disney prioritized attaching recognizable names to the movie over casting ethnically appropriate actors for the roles. Plus, they probably felt like they had room to play with the cultural inspirations because Kumandra is a fictional world, albeit one greatly shaped by the filmmakers’ background research into Southeast Asian countries.
Disney Princesses have been problematic for a long time, most of them depicting women as damsels-in-distress who need Prince Charming to ride in and rescue them from danger. Whether it’s Ariel surrendering her voice to the tentacled sorceress Ursula and changing herself from a mermaid to a human for a guy she barely knew, Pocahontas presenting a whitewashed version of the real-life figure’s story that promotes the Indian Princess stereotype, or Belle falling for her captor and then her love being the force that changes the Beast back into a human, the majority of Princesses are saddled with misogynist notions that are deeply harmful for growing girls to absorb. Recent Princesses, however, have been subverting these tropes. Frozen included a couple male love interests but then showed sisterly love saving the day in lieu of heterosexual love, Moana did away with the romance entirely and concentrated on the heroine’s story of self-identity, and now Raya gives us another heroine who is equally as independent and spirited. As a warrior who doesn’t spend time prettying herself up or interacting with a male suitor, Raya demonstrates the antithesis of what we’ve long thought of as the traditional Disney Princess. Namaari shows similar qualities as the warrior princess of her own region. Hopefully, this is not only becoming the norm but also laying down the path for further representation in the form of a Princess who’s queer or plus-size.
As positive as I feel about the movie, the sparse plot would have benefitted from more meat to flesh out the story, the lore, and the themes. Raya clocks in at one hour and fifty-two minutes, a surprisingly long runtime for an animated film. But when it’s set in a world as culturally vibrant and as ready for a sprawling fantasy epic as Kumandra, going along with Raya and her idiosyncratic bunch for two hours isn’t something I would have minded at all. Instead, the movie decides to rush through its journey, aim itself at the children rather than the adults, and keep things predictable in a tale that borrows heavily from its forerunners (Raya’s character design bears a striking resemblance to the eponymous protagonist of The Legend of Korra, Sisu could have been inspired by Mushu in Mulan and the Genie in Aladdin, the prologue is evocative of Moana, and the narrative and the fight choreography are reminiscent of Kung Fu Panda, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra). The trust message that it foists on its audience can feel lazy and on-the-nose at times, but it develops in some intriguing and ultimately successful ways that I’ll break down in the spoilers section. The simplicity of the story should make it appealing for the youngsters, but adults might find themselves itching for a more layered product. It’s a shame, because I loved the variety of Southeast Asian influences on the kingdoms of Kumandra and would have been eager to delve deeper into them. Personally, I’d love to see this spawn a sequel or a Disney+ series to expand the world.
Oddly enough for a Disney Princess feature, nobody breaks into song over their aspirations and desires. I’m okay with that, though I’m partial to a return to musical numbers in the future. I also wish I could have found satisfaction in James Newton Howard’s (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight alongside Hans Zimmer, The Hunger Games) score. It’s passable, but I won’t be listening to the whole soundtrack on Spotify the way I’ve recently done for the Tenet score by Ludwig Göransson and the Soul soundtrack by Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross. The Jhené Aiko credits track “Lead the Way” isn’t particularly memorable either.
I didn’t watch the live-action Mulanreboot when it dropped on Premier Access last year, so Raya is the first movie for which I had to get past the $29.99 paywall. I know some people are whining about the price tag and wanting to watch it for free like Soul, but remember, the studio needs to see some bread at the end of the day so it can at least break even on Raya’s $100 million budget (it brought in $5.5 million at the domestic box office and $52.6 million at the global box office after the second weekend, which does leave me worried as to how much cash Disney, and film studios in general, will pour into their mid- and post-COVID projects). Having seen this once with my mom and a second time by myself, we’ve already gotten our money’s worth. This is certainly a recommend for families whose kids will rewatch the movie over and over. As for households with one or two adults, I would say the fee is worth it (a) if you’re a Disney devotee or (b) if you’re in the mood for everything I praised, including the breathtaking artistry and rich worldbuilding, and you don’t mind formulaic plotting.
All my love and prayers go to you. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 85/100
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Trust. That’s the theme of Raya—being able to depend on others who are hostile or share differing opinions in order to unite for the greater good. The movie hammers this into the audience’s brain quite often, and I wish it had been written into the script with more subtlety. Something else I struggled with is the prologue’s choice to set up Raya as being eager to show Namaari the gem in spite of their having met just that day. It wouldn’t have felt so contrived if they’d already met or if the land representatives were staying in Heart for a few weeks so that Namaari could plausibly gain Raya’s trust over that time. This is one of the major flaws in an otherwise excellent Disney picture: scenes that feel rushed or forced for the sake of expediting the plot and keeping it under two hours, when in actuality, the movie should have gone over that runtime to let those scenes take the time to breathe and unfold more believably.
But it does deliver its morals in some captivating ways. Partway through the story, Sisu observes that the supernatural Druun were “born from human discord.” You could easily compare the Druun to COVID or climate change. In both cases, we’ve seen people all over the globe wrestle with these formidable threats by clashing with each other instead of banding together, leaving them even more vulnerable to said threats.
Another example is the third-act scene where Namaari accidentally fires her bow at Sisu in response to taking a hit from Raya’s sword (God, I love that thing, it reminds me of Blake Belladonna’s Gambol Shroud in the Rooster Teeth web series RWBY). The point of this is that Raya, whom Sisu has repeatedly admonished up to now for being quick to distrust people, is supposed to have faith in Sisu’s ability to neutralize the confrontation with Namaari. Because Raya trusts neither Namaari nor Sisu, however, she intervenes and ends up aggravating the situation.
I think the climax—Raya entrusting Namaari with the task of reassembling the gem as the Druun swarm around their motley band and are about to turn them all to stone, which is redolent of the beat in Guardians of the Galaxy where a different team of misfits shares the energy of the Power Stone—sticks the landing on the leitmotif pretty well. An intangible concept like trust can be difficult to communicate thematically. Even with all the times where the screenplay repetitively explains to us the importance of trust, I come away generally satisfied thanks to the segments that are smart enough to show us instead.
It wasn’t a surprise to me when Namaari redeemed herself. Personally, I never got strong villain vibes from her. I’m tired of boring villains who cackle maniacally and twirl their mustache as they carry out their dastardly plots, and consequently it’s refreshing that Namaari ends up being a convincing antagonist who cares deeply for her home and is determined to protect it. She wasn’t even the one who wanted to kidnap Sisu—Virana was the one who persuaded her to go through with that plan, and I’m assuming she also masterminded the scheme to steal the gem with Namaari’s assistance.
The assemblage of a ragtag crew to support the hero is an age-old quest trope, one that’s used to great effect here. Silly and kiddie-friendly humor isn’t always my cup of tea, but in this case Sisu, Boun, the con-baby Noi and her Ongi accomplices (they bring to mind those zany penguins in the Madagascar movies), and Tong manage to strike the right notes for most of the gags—with the exception of the anachronistic jokes that involve Sisu using modern-day slang, which tended to pull me out of the experience. The gang adds heart to the story as well, getting us to feel for them as they grieve for their lapidified families and then reunite with them in the denouement.
Plot Hole Alert: Whatever happened to Chief Benja‘s leg wound? When he’s brought back to life, he apparently isn’t afflicted with the injury he sustained before the Druun turned him to stone.
Raya and Namaari take part in a riveting and angsty dynamic throughout the story, one that easily could have morphed into an enemies-to-lovers romance. I thought maybe I was the only one detecting the chemistry thereof until I went on the Internet and realized I wasn’t the only one shipping Rayaari. It’s fascinating how much the movie allows you to read into the romantically charged nuances of their initial meeting, their subsequent fights, the animation of their gestures, and their snarky banter without overtly confirming anything. It certainly came off powerfully enough from the script that Tran likewise read into the relationship as a love story, according to her Vanity Fair interview. On top of this, the movie’s novelization tells us that “dep la,” a term of endearment that keeps recurring between them, is Kumandran for “best friend”; it’s possible that it originates from “đẹp lắm,” which is Vietnamese for “beautiful.” It can’t be mere coincidence that so many elements come together to reinforce the queer undertones, and I would have been all for a kiss at the end. Oh well, I guess we’ll have to settle for Rayaari fanfic while we wait for Disney to fulfill our gay dreams.
So, that’s Raya and The Last Dragon.While the paint-by-numbers plot holds it back and it might have helped if it were written as a darker and more intricate fantasy epic geared more towards adults, it’s very much another enthralling entry in the Disney Princess franchise.