Tatler Review: Raya And The Last Dragon—Why We Need More Movies Like This
Even as it was first announced in 2020, Raya and the Last Dragon instantly became the buzz around town.
Why? Well, for one, it's a Disney princess movie, and as we all well know, Disney princess movies are exciting. Perhaps not since Moana has that love for Disney been so uproariously felt. But more than that, Raya and the Last Dragon seemed a huge win for Asian representation. For the first time in forever, Southeast Asian people were being handed over to the spotlight. There was a mishmash of various cultures among our ASEAN neighbours—a sidekick named Tuktuk, a battle with arnis sticks—and so many more. These multifarious details all came together to celebrate a wide, often-overlooked region so close to home; and the fact that Raya had brown, beautifully morena skin was, in itself, something to speak of.
Raya and the Last Dragon begins by introducing us to Kumandra, Raya's home. In the past, Kumandra had been a united land; but with the arrival of the Druuns (who turned people to stone), chaos and separation had ensued. Fortunately, a race of dragons were able to sacrifice themselves and manifest a sacred gem to keep the Druuns at bay. At the start of the film, viewers are introduced to Raya and her father as caretakers of this sacred gem, kept safe in their land at Heart.
Though leaders from the other areas of Kumandra—Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang—show hostility towards Raya and her father's kingdom at Heart, Raya's father invites them to his land in an attempt to make peace. Chaos ensues as Namaari, a princess from Fang, tricks Raya and nearly manages to steal the gem. Instead, in the heat of the moment, the gem breaks, and each kingdom manages to grab a piece. With its powers weakening, the Druuns wake from their slumber and overtake Kumandra. Raya's father is turned to stone and now our namesake heroine goes in search for Sisu, the last dragon, in order to vanquish the Druuns and bring her father back to life.
Perhaps the first thing to point out about this movie is that (as it is with all Disney princess movies), it is made with children in mind. As such, there's the usual formula seen in other movies such as Tangled and Moana. There's the distinct brand of witty, if childish humour present in dialogue. There's the animal sidekick, the hodgepodge troupe of mismatched helpers, the death and resurrection of a main character, and the moral, always the moral. For this movie, it's spelled out clear as day: we have to trust one another. While the lesson itself is a heartwarming thing to teach children—instead of animosity or cynicism, show them the importance of trust, friendship, and vulnerability—it's also one that's a tad too idealistic to be executed as easily in real life as it is in Kumandra.
Another aspect about the movie that's important to touch on is its representation of Asian culture. There's no doubt about it: representation is important, not just for the exhilaration one feels when seeing a familiar object, practice, or person in a major Hollywood film, but also for empowerment. Both Raya and Namaari are strong, fierce women of colour, and—especially for Namaari—it's obvious they care for the people of their kingdom. Disney's choice to pivot away from the traditional romance of a male lead is also a relevant and empowering theme for young girls everywhere. Not to mention the fact that some members of the LGBT community have found representation in Raya and Namaari's dynamic.
While I wouldn't personally call Raya and the Last Dragon to be my favourite Disney movie of all time, it is one that's worth seeing. There are plenty of scenes that could spark your wanderlust—the charming Hoi An-inspired village of Talon, the imposing white and gold buildings of Fang reminiscent of Angkor Wat. All in all, definitely a movie that could be the stepping stone for future representation and relevancy in Hollywood.