By Staff Writer Joanne Park
Armed with an exceptional animation style, unique comic book-type transitions, and a heartfelt storyline about trust and culture, Disney’s latest animated feature film Raya and the Last Dragon premiered on March 5 in both the theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access. The film is a homage to numerous Southeast Asian cultures, incorporating elements such as foods and environments native to Southeast Asian countries, slang inspired by languages such as Vietnamese, and the particular naming of characters — for example, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a large but friendly armadillo-like animal that the protagonist Raya travels with through the landscape, is named after a three-wheeled motor vehicle used for taxi services in Thailand.
Raya and the Last Dragon is available to watch on Disney+ with Premier Access.
Set in a fantasy land called Kumandra, the film follows the journey of a lone warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a princess of a kingdom that was besieged by Druuns, a species of ancient creatures born from human discord that turned people into stone. Five hundred years ago, a group of dragons sacrificed themselves to create a crystal that could dispel the Druuns from the land, but the creatures make a reappearance after the crystal breaks due to the betrayal of someone Raya had considered a friend. Raya charges herself with the task of finding the last dragon on earth in order to save her land and defeat the Druuns.
Though the Druuns are one of the main antagonistic presences in the film, the driving force of the conflict truly stems from Raya herself, successfully subverting the easy conflict of man versus nature to a more poignant conflict of man versus self and taking the audience on the same introspective journey as the protagonist through the portrayal of relatable themes and struggles.
Raya’s story is rooted in guilt, grief, and her loss of trust in people from the betrayal she experienced early in her life. The themes of the story are built on the foundation of finding unity in mourning and learning to trust others as a necessary gateway to grow beyond the confines of oneself, leaving the audience to ponder throughout the film on the kinds of relationships that they hold in regard to authentic trust — how much trust would you place in your peers, your friends, your family? How much do you trust yourself?
Raya’s dragon companion, Sisu, is voiced by actress and comedian Awkwafina.
Though Raya and the Last Dragon manages to capture the unique tale of a protagonist with a fresher theme of trust than the tired love-wins-all tropes that are often recycled throughout media, the film is not without its reliance on cliche motifs. The first half of the movie falls into a rather formulaic structure as it follows the typical adventure story mold and methodically ticks off the introductions of new characters in the ensemble. The members of Raya’s group come together to form an amalgamation of slightly overexaggerated character tropes: the stoic protagonist who only has eyes to complete their mission until they ultimately learn the true, deeper-rooted meaning of their journey, the clumsy but loveable fool, the tough guy who is secretly a softie at heart, the unexpectedly overpowered secret weapon, and the comic relief.
The intensity of the climax when Raya and her assembly attempt to defeat the Druuns once and for all, too, dissipates as the major conflict is resolved through the work of movie magic that dictates love and friendship wins all. The momentarily jarring bit of ex machina — a convenient, often sloppy plot point that helps easily resolve a conflict — could have been executed more effectively through pacing adjustments that flesh out the sequences further and provide more thought-out explanations. Instead, it leads into an abrupt pan to a happily-ever-after and forces viewers to suspend their disbelief in order to make sense of the film’s ending.
Despite the film’s weak points in writing, the technical animation aspects of the film continue to impress. The deep character emotions, the setting backgrounds that set the tone of the scenes, and the fight sequences are each dynamic and expressive through the tide-like push and pull each character exhibits in their moves. Water plays an important part in the narrative as it thematically represents Earth’s life force, and its equally life-like qualities add to the mystical aesthetics of the film. This is an impressive feat considering how animating water has been a difficult branch of film that has been developing for many years now.
Outside of the film itself, Raya and the Last Dragon has attracted controversy regarding both its casting and distribution process. The film visits many different fictional settings that were inspired by Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore, Laos, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The main cast, however, notably has a lack of any South Asian actors and consists of nearly exclusively East Asian actors instead, including many Hollywood big-name actresses such as Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, and Gemma Chan. For a movie whose settings were heavily inspired by Southeast Asian countries and serves as a ground-breaking celebration of such cultures on a corporate-Disney level, the absence of voices with South Asian origins was a cause for a simmering concern.
Additionally, with its exclusive availability in either in-person theaters or on Disney+ (which already requires a subscription) behind a one-time paywall of $29.99 for Premier Access, Raya and the Last Dragon saw less success in its first two weeks of premiering compared to other animated films released without the Premier Access paywall during the pandemic, such as The Croods: A New Age and Tom and Jerry.
The Premier Access function is a recently-added feature on the streaming platform, also used on Mulan (2020), a live-action Disney film also featuring a cast of nearly exclusively Asian actors. With the necessity to pay an additional $30 on top of a Disney+ subscription in order to watch the film, it costs much more than a typical ticket to the movie theater. The expensive rates are a significant turn-off to the general public, making this culturally diverse film more difficult to access compared to films available on other platforms such as Netflix or Hulu, where everything is typically available on demand.
Even considering its writing and marketing flaws, however, Raya and the Last Dragon is ultimately a triumph of animation and a heartfelt narrative around learning to trust others in order to grow from a lonely, isolated world and find the light at the end of the tunnel after a journey of enlightening reflection.
Watch the trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon now.