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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

The new Disney princess movie features a tale of trust

Fans of “Moana” and “Big Hero 6” will fall in love with Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, Raya. “Raya and the Last Dragon” tells her story with vibrant colors, spot-on voice acting and a storyline that has everyone wondering who the real “villain” is. 

The movie follows five kingdoms split up by their greed. What started as the nation united as Kumandra—where people lived in harmony with one another—became a place where an evil magic plague turned all its victims into stone. Kumandra was threatened, so in a last attempt to save the nation, the dragons that occupied the land sacrificed themselves. All that was left of the dragons was one stone that protected the nations, but the nation split up into five kingdoms, each left to provide for themselves, and the dragon stone was kept in Raya’s home: Heart. 

When the stone is shattered, the evil plague is unleashed once again and each village takes a piece of the stone, running back to their homeland as they find their own way to protect themselves. Trained as a child to protect the stone, Raya makes it her mission to find the last dragon and have it restore the balance in the world. Through this adventure she meets a group of rag-tag individuals whose families have fallen due to the plague.

Disney stayed true to its recent princesses and didn’t give Raya a male partner, instead deciding to focus on teaching a moral and showing an internal struggle that we see Raya face throughout her story. The movie is a wonderful entrance into another world and it’s easy to see why it has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” wasn’t a musical, which was surprising considering Disney’s past depiction of princesses, but the background music was enough to build the tension and move the story along without singing. The movie starts off by quickly retelling the story of dragons that once roamed the nation, setting the scene for the kingdoms that are now run by cynics. The fast-paced action and retelling made this film a great addition to the Disney princess movies. From the beginning, the story tells its audience why they should care about the movie enough to sit down and watch it. 

Ultimately, the best thing about the movie is the character Raya, who is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran. Past princesses that actively use their voice and strive for what they want were given redeemable and likable characteristics. They are strong-willed yet kind, hardworking yet soft. But with Raya, we see the flaws in her character. Raya is determined, of course, but the writers sprinkled in stubbornness and showered her with trust issues. All of these traits explain who she is and are understandable considering her past, making her a beautifully crafted three-dimensional character. The main character can make or break a movie, and Raya went above and beyond Disney princess expectations. 

The writers also portrayed the dragon as a sentient being that showed real empathy. Susu the dragon (voiced by Awkwafina) wasn’t merely a wise old dragon, nor was she a complete goofball; she had a balance that was necessary for both a heartfelt moment and a quick laugh to ease tension. Susu plays an important role in Raya realizing what must be done in order to heal the kingdoms. But the best part is that the dragon was not cast as the savior; this could have easily been scripted as a problem that required an otherworldly gesture to save all of those who have turned into stone, but instead it focuses on Raya. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” gave representation that Disney’s “Mulan” (2020) attempted but ultimately failed to do. “Mulan” was able to celebrate Asian culture in the sense that the actors themselves were Asian and they were telling a Chinese story, but the writers, producers and directors were white. There was a lack of knowledge of Asian culture behind the scenes, creating a superficial attempt at representation. “Raya and the Last Dragon,” on the other hand, includes an Asian cast along with Asian writers, taking a step toward representation that is desperately needed in the film industry. 

However, with a new attempt for representation came some downfalls. With this movie, Disney gave viewers a peek of Southeast Asian representation, but there are numerous cultures in that group and viewers felt like the movie treated all of these cultures as one. Producer Osnat Schurer insists that the movie is not set in a specific nation. Instead, they took inspiration from different cultures around Southeast Asia. 

The movie “Raya and the Last Dragon,” is part of Disney Premiere’s access, where members have to pay an additional $30 on top of the original subscription to watch. 
Written by: Itzelth Gamboa — arts@theaggie.org

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