After over a dozen Disney Princess movies, Disney pretty much has this down to a science. And their latest animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, is no different. Dead parent? Check. Animal sidekick? Check. A message about being true to your heart? Check. But a princess who is also a skilled warrior on a mission with a legendary beast to defeat an unstoppable evil force? I have to say, that was new. (Okay, that might sound like Mulan. But it’s nothing like Mulan, promise.)
Raya and the Last Dragon is the story of Raya, the Princess of the land of Heart, one of five lands that once coexisted as the land of Kumandra. Told in beautiful stylized 2D animation, Raya, played by Kelly Marie Tran, explains the backstory of Kumandra, and the movie. 500 years ago, humans lived in harmony in Kumandra alongside dragons. When an evil force attempted to destroy humanity, the dragons sacrificed themselves, save one. But in their absence, Kumandra tore itself apart trying to seize power and became five different lands, each named after a part of the dragon: Tail, Spine, Talon, Fang, and Raya’s land, Heart. When the evil forces return, Raya is forced to leave Heart and search for Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the last dragon, to save everyone.
What makes Raya and the Last Dragon great is its sense of balance. It’s a heroine story, but also an ensemble quest story. It’s got those moments of moving human experience, but also silly kid’s movie shenanigans. It makes you feel something and teaches you a lesson while also being whimsical and at its heart, an animated Disney movie. These elements combine to create an instant Disney classic and the perfect next Disney Princess.
The Next Disney Princess
Raya is everything the next Disney Princess needed to be. After Moana, a strong, independent Disney Princess with no love interest who saved everyone, the days of waiting for True Love’s Kiss were long gone. While there are certainly parallels that can be drawn, Raya takes everything that Moana built as an example of a Disney Princess who is the hero of her own story, and builds upon them. Unlike Moana, Raya doesn’t have any powers or connection to nature that help her in her quest. Raya was born into leadership, sure, but that leadership didn’t come with anything that made her inherently more qualified to save the day. Her fighting abilities come from something innate within her and training with her father as a child, not a mystical energy. And her desire to do good and be good isn’t a result of the impending danger, its within her all along.
Here in our world, Disney Princesses serve as inspirations and role models for kids around the world. And what kind of inspiration they were meant to serve has changed since Snow White in 1937. No longer is the expectation to clean the house and find a spouse. In 2021, Raya serves as the perfect inspirational figurehead for kids to look up to. She is fierce but kind, strong but soft, and even more than the Princesses who came before her, she alone is the hero of her own story.
But what’s a hero without her band of sidekicks? There’s Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), her animal companion who is part armadillo, part pill bug, and part pug. And, just like Buffy and her Scoobies, Raya travels with a wild bunch that grows as her quest continues. They continue to provide that balance between serious and goofy such as Noi (Thalia Tran), a toddler, and her Ongi friends, who are monkey-catfish hybrids. They also balance out Raya’s weaknesses. Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior from Spine, aids in physical strength. Boun (Izaac Wang), a child from Tail, provides transportation and sustenance. And of course, Sisu, but more on her in a moment. They each bring unique talents, but also unique struggles to the group. They bond over the grief of lost loved ones and the desire to bring them back. Even Noi, a toddler, is a well-rounded character with motivations, and these motivations bring them together, teaching the audience a lesson on teamwork and trust. This ensemble element gives any audience member the opportunity for a favorite character and provides hilarious and compelling dynamics that entertain from the Castle logo to the end credits.
The Last Dragon
When you think of dragon, you probably think majestic, fire-breathing, ferocious. You probably don’t think of Awkwafina making jokes about group projects. And yet, that’s exactly what makes Sisu work as a foil to Raya.
Sisu is awkward and funny. She is mystical and kindhearted. But most of all, she is genuine. At each stop along the quest, she wants to believe the best in people. Her strategy is to win over the other lands with gifts, rather than use stealth or trickery. She’s a lens into what Kumandra, and humanity, was 500 years ago when she last saw them, and a hope for what they could be again.
And, she’s Awkwafina. She’s hilarious. Sometimes, to the point that it brings you out of the immersion of the world of Kumandra, even if it makes you laugh. (Like, as I said above, a dragon making a reference to group projects.) She brings a human-ness to a dragon that makes the mystical beast relatable. Like the other members of the team, she’s alone and constantly reminiscing on her brothers and sisters. But she’s able to remind the group to remember the positive memories and use that as motivation.
Sisu is pure Disney. She is the imaginary dragon best friend every kid is going to wish they had, and I think she will join the ranks of The Genie from Aladdin and the Fairy Godmother in due time.
Raya is Disney’s first Southeast Asian Princess, and it’s great to see a continued effort towards diversity in such a major lineup. Kumandra is a fictional civilization, but is inspired by various aspects of East Asian culture. The filmmakers studied Southeast Asian architecture, fashion, cuisine, and customs. In Disney’s press materials, Director Carlos López Astrada said,
“We’re making a movie that is inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, and we want to make sure that when people from the region see this, although Kumandra is a made-up place, they can feel the love and respect the team had for the incredible real places that inspired us. We worked hard to make sure that this world we created feels dynamic, that the inspirations affecting the story really come through and that nothing is lost. We want to pay tribute to these cultures that inspired the story and the world of Kumandra.”
Though I am not the most qualified person to speak on the subject, as I am not Southeast Asian, I did recognize these conscious choices throughout the movie. From the way Raya takes her shoes off before praying to the dragons to Boun’s cooking, Kumandra feels real because it’s rooted in real culture. I’m excited to continue to see Disney tell these diverse stories and create heroic characters from all backgrounds.
A Work of Art
Whether you’re a fan of Disney’s shift in focus to CGI animation or prefer the classics, there is no arguing that Disney’s animation has become a technical masterpiece. Raya and the Last Dragon has a lot of water, in the form of Sisu’s magic as a water dragon and many, many rivers. And it looks like real water. This film has beautiful, diverse landscapes from deserts to snowy forests to vibrant marketplaces, and every piece of scenery is pure art. Raya still has big Disney Princess eyes, but her proportions are the closest to actual human proportions we’ve seen yet, The artists and animators also did a great job not just copy and pasting all the humans and giving them different hairstyles, but rather making each character, even the background merchants and warriors, unique.
This film also has a wonderful score, composed by Grammy award winner James Newton Howard. It crescendos at just the right moments in the action sequences, but also allows quiet in the poignant, emotional moments. Though Raya and the Last Dragon is not a musical, it worked better without a comical buddy duet between Raya and Sisu or an “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” training montage. And I’m sure there will be many more musicals in the future.
So, should you spend $30 to watch it?
Raya and the Last Dragon premieres Friday, March 5, 2021 on Disney+. However, like Mulan’s release in 2020, there is a $30 Premier Access fee in order to watch it. Once you gain access you can watch it as many times as you want, but for many, understandably, $30 is a lot. The justification tends to be that if a family of four were to see it in the movie theater pre-Covid-19 times, it would cost more than $30, so the price is reasonable. But if you’re a Disney adult living alone or just with a partner, that can be quite the charge when you could just watch another Disney movie for the subscription price you are already paying.
Obviously, I can’t speak to whether it makes financial sense for someone to watch this movie. What I can say is that it is worth the Premium Access fee. It is a heartwarming adventure with a compelling cast of characters and shenanigans abound. I didn’t even mention Raya’s antagonist, Namaari! (Played by Gemma Chan.) It has the familiarity of watching a Disney movie while also being brand new and entertaining from start to finish. Whether you’re watching with the family, for date night, or a night of self care, Raya and the Last Dragon will be a favorite for years to come.