As Disney’s first animated film to spotlight Southeast Asian characters, “Raya and the Last Dragon” draws and expands on Disney’s most well-known trademarks: intertwining important messages with enchanting animation and charming characters.
Apart from the obvious enjoyment that any Disney film would provide to a young audience, Disney’s latest adventure can be appreciated simultaneously by older audiences, as well. On the surface level, “Raya and the Last Dragon” promotes another dauntless heroine from an underrepresented ethnic group. However, a deeper message is conveyed by the harm inflicted on a magical kingdom due to disunion and mistrust, reflecting the way in which our nation was divided during former President Trump’s term, as he often did not trust many other political leaders.
The film is cinematically opened and narrated by the protagonist, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who explains that for centuries, the mystical land of Kamandra was guarded by dragons that served as protectors of humanity. However, following their sacrifice to save the human race, Kamandra was divided into five distinct kingdoms, all of which are named after a dragon’s body parts: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.
Eventually, all five kingdoms agree to unite in hopes of reaching a peace agreement. However, when tension emerges, the Dragon Gem, a sacred jewel that houses the magical powers once possessed by the dragons, shatters into five pieces. This opens a gateway for a horrible plague, called the Druun, that transforms people to stone.
Raya survives the Druun, while her father, the leader of Heart, is not as lucky. With this, Raya vows to retrieve the fragments of the Dragon Gem, undo the damages inflicted, and restore harmony to her world.
With the assistance of her trusty sidekick, a water dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who was resurrected as the last of her kind, Raya must travel the lands of Kamandra to successfully carry out her journey, while dodging obstacles bought on by the terrain of each territory.
Among the supporting characters, one notable is Nemaari (Gemma Chan), Raya’s childhood rival, their relationship dating back to a betrayal that led to the fragmentation of the Dragon Gem. These two sworn enemies eventually learn that one may go quicker alone, but further through cooperation. This plot point is one of many reinforcing another powerful theme in this film, finding the courage to trust others.
In addition to the different approaches taken regarding the theme of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” this particular film sets itself apart from previous Disney animations because of its incredible world building. Directors Don Hall and Carlos Estrada illustrate each province in a distinct manner, all of which portray a specific atmosphere established by Raya’s previous accomplishment. As such, rather than journeying through a uniform, homogeneous terrain, as Raya’s quest progresses, the terrain, weather, color palette and lighting all vary dramatically. In this way, the tone of the film and the environment in which Raya travels clearly reflects the status of her quest, making it easy for certain emotions to be invoked throughout specific scenes of the film.
Even with the familiarity of the somewhat trite story line and slightly rushed events, this film exceeds expectations as Disney unexpectedly travels out of its comfort zone regarding the messaging, which is centered around the harm caused by conflict. The fact that no stone was left unturned brought a sense of fulfillment and closure as expected from all Disney animations. Additionally, having the first Southeast Asian Disney princess and an almost entirely Asian cast was a major breakthrough in the film industry, as the AAPI community is an underrepresented minority in the American film industry.
I can confidently say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of Disney’s best works given the strong message portrayed, and could not have been released at a better time, as the world needs a message assuring everybody that when in difficult times, trust and unity are crucial for resilience.