Raya and the Last Dragon lands in an unfortunate pandemic era with an escalation of infections and the reported xenophobic violence against Asian communities in the USA, so the face of an animated Southeast Asian heroine, voiced by Star Wars alumni Kelly Marie Tran (who has endured fandom bullying), feels like an embracing reassurance. With screenwriters Adele Lim (Malaysian) and Qui Nguyen (Vietnamese) lending their penmanship, along with Thai artist Fawn Veerasunthorn as the head of story, Disney Animation Studio’s latest computer-animated feature film is imbued with fresh voices, humans and imagination.
In the fictional land of Kumandra — a South Asia-inspired world carved from places like Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines and Brunei — humanity locked themselves in a war so terrible that they were turned to stone. So, the dragons performed their magic to sacrifice themselves to save humanity. But five centuries later, humanity remains embroiled in distrust. Enter the kingdom of Heart. Raya’s ruling chief (Daniel Dae Kim), a guardian of the gem that contains the last dragon’s soul, hopes to court peace with the four other tribes and invites them for a diplomatic feast. When the young princess Raya befriends a rival faction princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan), her trust is violated. Fractional conflict breaks out over the gem, and it is shattered into magical pieces that are stolen away by each faction. Blobs of shapeless mists that form the Druun, which are bourne from discord not unlike the Darkening in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, swallow the princess’ kingdom and encase them in stone. Six years later, the wandering princess resurrects the last dragon and hunts for the final pieces to assemble humanity’s salvation.
Shaded by her salakot cone hat, Raya is no more remarkable and plucky than other modern Disney protagonists in Frozen, Moana and Tangled, but Tran’s voice work imposes a presence of amiable fortitude, a charm that carried over from her work in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (which was thanklessly downgraded in its latest film). But it is Tran’s knack for kindling chemistry that’s most vital to the message of Raya and the Last Dragon. Raya’s first ally is the resurrected last dragon, an aquatic-furred Sisu (Awkwafina flexing her comedic and sincerity chops as a Disney sidekick), an ingenue of the current world order who nevertheless mentors Raya in the virtues of optimistic trust. Along the way, they build a fellowship from rival worlds: a 10-year-old boat restaurant owner (an adorably suave Izaac Wang), an agile con baby (Thalia Tran) flanked by acrobatic monkey accomplices, and a bulky guttural warrior (Benedict Wong at his most hilarious and heartfelt), whose hulking appearance turns out to be a facade for the bereaved family man.
Note how Raya often dreams up solutions akin to the directive of video game levels: defeat a big bad boss at each location and win the treasure. But each location holds a lesson: that winning is helping the strangers, even if they seem to be adversaries and assumed shells of stereotypes at first glance. Raya grows more versed in noting how the impulse to help exists as much as the temptation to fight.
Raya and the Last Dragon vibrates with a range of imagination, a kick-butt sense of humor and Disney idealism. It’s a recognizable brand of visual and character tropes with their own childlike spark: a cutesy sidekick Amarillo sidekick (Alan Tudyk) that serves as a trusty rolly steed across landscapes, a dragon that “flies” by frolicking on air puddles of rainwater, booby-trapped corridors with beetles that detonate color splashes. It’s the familiar Disney playbook of a heroine’s rise (sans musical numbers, though), kooky friends or foes and magic not unlike fairy dust. The tone, slick editing and snappy dialogue calibrate a smart-mouth vitality recognizable in screenwriter Nguyen’s stage work She Kills Monster.
Under the direction of Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, the narrative swipes from point A-B-C-D-E at the speed of sound to the thrashing score of James Newton Howard. Normally, the swift shifts to ornery setpiece to setpiece would steal necessary breathing space. But the immensity of those worlds — the market stalls on water lit with baubles of paper lanterns, misty forests with sky-high oak-sized bamboos, layered palaces surrounded by a canal — ensures that these landscapes and their crowds leave an impression. Every second is never fleeting through the gnashing of swordplay and steely confrontations with foes. (Don’t expect Disney to mine Namaari and Raya’s chemistry for a potential foes-to-lovers romance akin to Adora and Catra in the She-Ra reboot series, but I digress.)
In a revisiting of Raya and the Last Dragon, the more I sit back, the more I want justice for cultural lived-in intimacy, which more singular-focused Disney-Pixar pictures like Moana and Coco and even Disney-imitators like Over the Moon benefited from. This isn’t an issue of the lack of personalities of Raya’s party members hailing from different worlds — all harboring the unified mission to save their loved ones and survive — but rather the lack of pause to absorb individual interiority. Kumandra inhabitants engage in a greeting of hands forming a circle to pay respects, the protagonist removes footwear before entering scared spaces and there’s the obvious metaphor of the soup boiled with the signature ingredients from the five tribes (Oh, that peppered, sugared bamboo soup that would inspire fan-made recipes!). But for all the diverse attire, interaction, food, weaponry and rituals glimpsed in the cuts, foreground and background, there’s barely sustenance to how each of Raya’s allies lives by their own traditions, mores and rituals.
This premise has evoked knee-jerk, but still telling, comparisons to Avatar: The Last Airbender, a western animated series led by white creators that’s famous for mixing and mingling different Asian cultures — though predominantly East Asian in its case — to illustrate precedent-setting world-building and narrative complexity for children’s entertainment. Right now, Raya and the Last Dragon welcomes a reflection on its Asian-fusion design, not unlike the current conversation around Avatar, because western adaptations of Asian culture, even with visible and vocal creative Asian input, will come with a spectrum of orientalism and the risk of stirring up monothilizing soups rather than cultivating myriad variety. Critics have pointed out that the cast roster is dominated by East Asian voice actors rather than Southeast Asians representing Southeast Asian-based players.
Don’t expect Raya and the Last Dragon to overreach and spin its own memorable nuances to its humble escapist message of unity and trust. The adult-oriented Studio Ghibli Princess Mononoke, an unfair but handy comparison, is adept at fleshing out spectrums of the good, bad and gray for each soul and faction and their interchangeable relationships to corrupt forces, human and nature. Regardless, this fable and its bountiful fantasyscapes occupy the heart.
Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Bitch, Film School Rejects and Indiewire. Right now, she’s probably boiling ramen.