“Your favorite Disney Princess is Mulan, right?” is a question I’ve heard, and somewhat resented, many times over the years. Of course she would have to be my favorite; for decades Mulan was the only Asian face in Disney’s overwhelmingly white line-up of fairy-tale mascots, and Asian-Americans were starved for onscreen representation as it is (for the record, my favorite is Belle). I would admit to dressing up as the Chinese warrior for Halloween, and I will admit to being more than a little excited when I heard Disney was making a Southeast Asian-inspired Disney movie, featuring the company’s first-ever Southeast Asian Disney Princess. How long we’ve waited for this moment, to finally be shown in our brown-skinned glory, instead of faceless victims of the dozens of grimy jungle wars.
I start off this review by mentioning Raya and the Last Dragon‘s bid for diversity because that’s the big selling point for this fantasy epic. It’s the movie that features Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, played by effervescent Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran, whose creative team went above and beyond to accurately represent the region in the food, the architecture, the character design, down to every little tiny detail. The devil may be in the details, but is the Disney magic? Well, yes and no.
Raya and the Last Dragon a real barn-burner of an adventure epic, full of chases and elaborate style action sequences that would make Indiana Jones blush. As an animated fantasy epic, it’s a thrilling romp with a strong emotional core that even wanders into pure action cinema at times, thanks to breathtaking and hard-hitting fight sequences that are easily some of the best things Disney Animation has ever done. As a rarefied piece of Southeast Asian representation onscreen, it does its job.
Set in the fictional country of Kumandra, which is made up of five distinct lands — Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart — Raya and the Last Dragon follows the titular lone warrior as she embarks on a quest to find the last dragon and save the world from the sinister Druuns, malevolent forces that turn every human they touch to stone; among them, Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the chief of Heart. It’s a loss that weighs heavily on Raya, having unwittingly set the Druuns upon the world several years earlier, when she and Benja had welcomed the four other tribes to their home in a bid for harmony, and Raya — recently named Guardian of the Dragon Gem — shows another chief’s daughter, Namaari, the vault where the Gem is kept. Namaari quickly betrays Raya to allow her tribe of Fang to steal the Gem for themselves, believing that the Gem was the reason for Heart’s prosperity while all the other lands suffered. Hearing the commotion, the rest of the tribes and Benja rush to the vault, where a fight ensues — leading to the Gem breaking and unleashing the Druuns back onto the world.
But Raya believes that the last dragon – who had created the Gem that stopped the Druuns 500 years ago – is still alive, and embarks on a years-long quest to find her. Finally, after years of searching, at the end of a dried up river, Raya revives the long-slumbering Sisu (a buoyant Awkwafina), an enthusiastic, slightly dim-witted water dragon who has even less of a clue than Raya on how to save the world. The two of them set off on a quest to find all the pieces of the Dragon Gem, assembling an unlikely group of allies who help break down the barriers between tribes and break down the emotional walls that Raya had put up since being betrayed by Namaari (Gemma Chan, at her most growly) all those years ago.
At this point in Disney Animation history, there are certain expectations that come with every Disney movie: will there be cute sidekicks? Will it have a strong-willed protagonist who learns some important lesson? Will the adventure end in a grand, emotional climax that gives us a taste of that old, ineffable Disney magic once again? But Disney, as of late, is doing its best to redefine who gets to deliver that Disney magic by making efforts to diversify its characters and films in ways that feel strategic, yes, but still feel earnest and earned in the way that only a little Hawaiian girl’s joy at seeing herself in Moana can achieve.
So Disney has gotten some of the Moana team (including producer Osnat Shurer and co-director Don Hall, who helms Raya with Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada) back together to work their same magic on the Southeast Asian region (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, among half a dozen other countries). Like Moana before it, Raya and the Last Dragon, features a melting pot of influences that provide a rich texture to the film that elevates it from being a simple pastiche of action epics that came before it. On a superficial level, the obvious parallels to Avatar: The Last Airbender are there (right down to a breezy narrated introduction and the character designs), but the film also recalls the likes of Raiders of the Last Ark and Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, albeit with some Southeast Asian flair, like a lovely opening sequence that uses the traditional art of shadow puppetry. The brisk and efficient script, written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, also sprinkles in various nods and words that Malaysian or Vietnamese audiences will recognize.
However — and this is going to sound like criticism that I’m levying specifically at Raya and the Last Dragon, even though it’s not — Raya‘s vision of diversity doesn’t feel as satisfying as a more culturally specific story like Pixar’s Coco, for example, which found universality within its specificity. Seeing a familiar dish and hearing a familiar word doesn’t have quite the effect as recognizing a family dynamic onscreen. But one film shouldn’t have to handle the weight of representing an entire geographic region, and I don’t expect Raya and the Last Dragon to do so, though it appears to desperately want to.
But taken purely as an action epic, Raya and the Last Dragon is a real treat. Disney animation has never looked better, the sweeping tundras and twinkly night markets carrying a real-world weight to them, aided by the frequent use of shallow depth of field that adds a hazy beauty to the movie. The fight scenes are simply jaw-dropping, full of energy and oomph, and a terrifying realness that would have you believe the film’s directors flirted with an R-rating. Tran, who is absolutely perfect as Raya, imbuing a casual coolness to the prickly character, unleashes a frightening rage during the battle scenes that feel raw and unhinged in a way that Disney has rarely felt.
But Raya and the Last Dragon struggles with differing tones that threaten to undercut its big emotional moments. There’s a strain of wacky comedy that feels more in line with an early 2000s DreamWorks movie, like the absurd inclusion of a martial arts-fighting “con baby” who joins Raya’s team after an attempted theft. Raya’s entire unlikely team — which includes a scene-stealing Benedict Wong as a giant warrior Tong and newcomer Izaac Wang as a smirking 10-year-old shrimp boat chef named Boun — sits at that strange tonal intersection of the Disney comedy The Emperor’s New Groove and its original, serious version Kingdom of the Sun. But at the same time, they — along with Sisu and Namaari, who with Raya make up the unusually all-female lead trio — provide the beautiful beating heart of the film, which builds into a wrenching, lump-in-the-throat emotional climax that nearly makes up for the uneven tone.
So, does Raya and the Last Dragon give us a dose of that good old Disney magic? The Southeast Asian-flavored epic may not be quite the apex of representation that it wishes to be, but it gives us Disney magic of a new variety: one that is thrilling, and textured, and gives us a heroine with honeyed skin and a fascinating flaws who will be the favorite Disney Princess for a whole generation of Southeast Asian kids.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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