She’s young. Strong. Independent. And needs no Prince or special power to change the world. Joining Disney’s lineage of female-led animated films, Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is the latest film that will inspire kids to make a difference in the world.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the prosperous land of Kumandra where it is rampaged by evil spirits called the ‘Druun’. With the Druun petrifying people and absorbing their life forces, the dragons of Kumandra sacrificed their remaining magic to create an orb in order to revive everyone and ward off the Druun. However, it came with a price and the Dragons end up turning into stone.
With the orb creating a power struggle amongst the tribes, it was the land of Heart’s duty to guard the orb until the tribes can trust each other and unite as Kumandra once again. But when the Fang Tribe attempts to steal the orb, a fight breaks out among the tribes, resulting in the orb’s destruction. As a result, the Druun reappear and each tribe quickly stole an orb piece and retreated back to their respective tribes.
With the help of the Last Dragon called ‘Sisu’ (also known as the legendary dragon who has the potential to save the world), both Raya and Sisu must invade the neighbouring regions and regain pieces of the orb. Along their journey, they encounter new friends including young chef entrepreneur Boun; the fearsome warrior Tong; and con baby Little Noi and her monkey companions. But the biggest challenge was to steal Fang’s piece. Can they overcome Fang’s obstacles? Will the tribes ever unite and become one again?
Featuring a predominantly Asian-American cast including the voices of Kelly Marie Tran (Raya), Awkwafina (Sisu the Last Dragon), Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and Sandra Oh, this film is a fine example of Asian representation in recent years.
Rather than having a Prince save Raya and/or Raya possessing a super-power, we love Kelly Marie Tran’s portrayal as Raya — a young woman with heart and smarts who is trying to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, we still have some reservations about Awkwafina being chosen to play the Last Dragon. You’d think that the majestic Last Dragon would be more noble and wise in personality and speech. So the moment we saw Sisu’s childish appearance in conjunction with Awkwafina’s distinctive voice, we weren’t feeling the vibe at all.
While this creative approach is a bit of a head-scratcher, we understand that Sisu’s over-the-top goofy personality was to reach out to the younger audience. Thankfully, her character development is much deeper and more profound than we originally thought so we’ve had to overlook this matter sometimes. And as much as we hate to say this, Sisu and Raya’s bond is probably the least strongest of all Disney duos. Besides having their buddy-comedy entertainment continuously pushed onto the audience, there simply wasn’t a concrete connection between the two that the viewers can empathise with.
With a more humbling approach in representing Asia and its various cultures, we love the intricate details threaded into Raya and the Last Dragon. Kumandra might be a fantasy land but there were many aspects of the story inspired by Asian cultures such as Brunei, Cambodia, Phillipines, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia.
From the vast rice fields to the never-ending rivers, it is a definite escape to Asia. Much like Southeast Asia itself, each region (Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail) might be in the same geographical proximity but they each have their own traditions, customs, food, and costumes. For us (and other Asian viewers), there is a sense of warmth and comfortability that hits home in a relatable way. Asians pride themselves with their food so when we saw cameos of longans and durians in the film, along with the line “Have you eaten yet?” — we instantly felt at home.
However, it’s not all peace and harmony. Whether we like to admit it or not, not everyone is always on the same page — whether it be our local communities, countries, and even with our family members. Unfortunately, it is the element of ‘distrust’ that causes conflict amongst people. Not only do we witness a bit of backstabbing action behind each other’s backs, but people tend to manipulate and use each other for each other’s gain.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t unite and work with each other in a modest way in order to make the world a better place. And Raya and the Last Dragon portrays this concept beautifully from start to finish. As a viewer, we can only hope that this story ignites some strength and compassion amongst today’s young generation, and inspire them to carry the torch for the future.
Overall: Surprisingly, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a serious film compared to Disney’s predecessors. Although the character designs and overall animation were ‘average’ for a Disney animation, we must praise the great attention to detail throughout the film. From the spectacular art direction to its intricate details in building the world, Raya and the Last Dragon is a beautiful tribute to Asia and its vibrant cultures. And last but not least, we admire the film’s courage to tell a story that is embedded with deep themes and messages. Hopefully everyone can take a piece of the film and make a change in the real world themselves.
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