March 5, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa
Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional world of Kumandra, the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon” features a predominantly Asian voice cast of characters (with some white people) representing different cultures in this fantasy world.
Culture Clash: After a terrible plague has turned her father into a stone statue, a teenage girl named Raya goes in search of a mysterious dragon and missing pieces of a magical gem in war-torn Kumandra, in order to restore peace and safety to Kumandra.
Culture Audience: “Raya and the Last Dragon” will appeal primarily to people who enjoy visually stunning, well-written animation adventures that are family-friendly and have positive themes.
Walt Disney Animation has become the premiere studio for animated movies about princesses who are more like warriors than damsels in distress. And with “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney has delivered another instant classic. The movie’s voice cast is predominantly Asian, which is a big step forward for diversity in American-made animated films. The ethnicity of the characters is not the main focus of the story, nor does it have to be, since “Raya and the Last Dragon” has an overall theme of compassion in understanding people’s differences.
Four people are credited with directing “Raya and the Last Dragon”: directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa. Fortunately, the results don’t look like “too many cooks in the kitchen,” since this well-cast and gorgeously filmed movie has a consistent tone throughout the story. The movie’s protagonist is a girl named Raya, pronounced “ry-ah” (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), who explains in a voiceover intro about how her world of Kumandra has been torn apart by tribal feuding and a mystical plague called the Druun, which turns living beings into stone.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is one of those movies where it’s best not to miss the first 10 minutes, because that beginning of the film packs in a lot of necessary information in order to understand what’s going on for the rest of the movie. Raya, who appears to be about 16 or 17 for most of the story, explains that Kumandra was a harmonious world, filled with dragons that brought water and rain and peace. But about 500 years ago, the Druun (pronounced “droon”) arrived (it looks like purple mist), and turned most living beings into stone, except for one dragon.
That last dragon is a female named Sisu, pronounced “see-soo” (voiced by Awkwafina), who “concentrated all of her magic in a Dragon Gem and blasted the Druun.” This gem (which looks like a large diamond) is the only known way to fight off the Druun, so it’s become the most valuable object in Kumandra. Because of Sisu’s actions with the Dragon Gem, everyone that was turned to stone came back to life, except for the dragons. Besides the Dragon Gem, the only other way to stop the Druun is to be surrounded by a large body of water.
Sisu then became a mythical hero in Kumandra, with some people believing that Sisu might still be alive. Meanwhile, Sisu’s magical Dragon Gem became highly coveted, and various people in Kumandra began feuding to get possession of the Dragon Gem, which was secretly hidden. Borders were drawn for five different lands, and the tribes in each land have been enemies of each other for the past 500 years.
Raya describes these five lands:
- Tail, “a sweltering desert of sneaky mercenaries who fight dirty.” The Tail tribe wears a lot of yellow.
- Talon, “a floating market with fast deals and fighters with even faster hands.” The Talon tribe wears a lot of purple.
- Spine, “a frigid bamboo forest guarded by large warriors and their giant axes.” The Spine tribe wears a lot of green.
- Fang, “our fiercest enemy, a nation protected by angry assassins and even angrier cats.” The Fang tribe wears a lot of off-white.
- Heart, the land where Raya and her father Benja live, is the most neutral and prosperous of the five lands. The Heart tribe doesn’t really have a color-coordinated way of dressing.
The story continues with a flashback of when Raya was about 10 or 11 years old. Her widower father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who is the chief of Heart, has been the secret guardian of the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a remote part of a cave. Raya knows this secret, and she passes her father’s physical test to see if she would be able to reach the Dragon Gem if necessary.
Benja has a bold plan to reunite all the feuding tribes of Kumandra. He invites the people of Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang to Heart. And he gives a speech asking everyone to try to get along with each other. His speech is met with a lot of ridicule, until Raya and Benja mention all the free food that’s available at the gathering. Some of the other tribes are scarce on resources, such as food.
Raya makes eye contact in the crowd with a girl from Fang who’s about the same age as she is. They smile at each other, as an indication that they’re open to becoming friends. Raya steps into the crowd and begins talking to the girl. The other girl is Fang’s princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who is the daughter of Fang’s calm and calculating leader Virana (voiced by Sandra Oh).
The other tribes see how Raya and Namaari have started to amicably interact with each other, so they gather in an area that’s set up to look like Kumandra’s version of a family-friendly cocktail party. Raya and Namaari have an instant friendship connection, when they find out that they are both superfans of Sisu. The two girls also found out other things that they have in common are that they both want to be warriors and they both have single parents who tell terrible jokes.
Namaari has a Sisu necklace that Raya admires, and Raya is flattered and surprised when Namaari gives the necklace to Raya. This act of generosity prompts Raya to to impulsively show Namaari the secret location where the Dragon Gem is kept. However, Raya is in for a betrayal and a rude awakening, when Namaari sends a signal to the people in her tribe that she’s found the Dragon Gem.
Other members of the Fang tribe, including Namaari’s mother Virana, rush inside the cave and begin to try to get the gem. Meanwhile, members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes have followed them inside the cave to see what all the fuss is about. And when they all see the Dragon Gem, all hell breaks loose.
Benja and Raya bravely try to prevent the Dragon Gem from being taken, but Raya and Benja are outnumbered. People begin fighting to take possession of the gem, which ends up dropping on the ground and shattering into five pieces. The Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang tribes each take one piece and scatter back to their lands, while a fifth piece is left behind at Heart.
The shattering of the Dragon Gem causes the Druun to come back with a vengeance, so there are many people in all tribes who get turned into stone. One of them is Benja, who valiantly throws Raya off a bridge to save her from being in the Druun’s path. She falls into the water (which is protection from the Druun), and she is able to survive.
The story then fast-forwards to six years later. Raya is now a lonely teenage orphan who’s been wandering through the now-devastated Kumandra, on a quest to find all of the pieces of the Dragon Gem to put them back together. Accompanying Raya on this quest is a creature called Tuk Tuk, which is part pill bug and part pug. Tuk Tuk, which is Raya’s closest companion, has grown considerably since her childhood, from being small enough to fit in the palm of her hand to currently being large enough to transport her like a giant snail.
Raya is grieving over the loss of her father, and she’s consumed with bitterness over how she was betrayed by Namaari. Throughout the movie, it’s repeated how this betrayal has caused Raya to not trust anyone. And she wants to get revenge on Namaari and the Fang tribe the most.
Because being near a large body of water is a form of protection against the Druun, Raya has been seeking out all the rivers in Kumandra. When she gets to the last river, Raya calls out to the spirit of Sisu to help her. Just then, Sisu appears, to Raya’s shock. Sisu then transforms herself into a human, as a teenager with multicolored hair.
Raya is awestruck but she doesn’t lose focus on her mission. She tells Sisu about her plan to find all the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Sisu agrees to help her and mentions that her best magical ability is that she’s a “really strong swimmer.”
And so, Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk go on this adventure that’s fraught with danger but also filled with wonder and hope. Along the way, they meet some memorable characters. One of them is Boun (played by Izaac Wang), pronounced “boon,” a wisecracking 10 year-old boy who’s the captain of his own rickety-looking wooden ship. He calls himself Captain Boun, and he invites Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk to ride on the ship to wherever they need to go.
During this journey they also encounter a giant named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong); Talon’s chief Dang Hai (played by Sung Kang); and Dang Hu (voiced by Lucille Soong), an elderly guide. For the “cute and cuddly factor” that’s a staple of Disney animated movies, there are some innocent-looking characters that commit some not-so-innocent acts: Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) is a toddler with a habit of stealing items (and she steals lots of scenes too), and she hangs out with three Ongis, which are con-artist creatures that are part monkey, part catfish. And, of course, Namaari shows up again and finds out what Raya is planning to do.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” has overtones about world peace without being too preachy about it. It’s also a story about the capacity to forgive and how difficult it can be to overcome grudges when revenge for death, as well as hatred of a certain group of people, have become ingrained in someone’s soul or someone’s culture. A lot of these messages are wrapped up in the vibrant adventure aspect of the story, but these themes are constant throughout the entire film.
The movie has some commentary about hero worship and the dangers of exalting others to a degree that’s not always healthy or realistic. Sisu reveals some secrets about herself that give a different perspective on her mythical hero status. Awkwafina is a personality that people either seem to love or hate, but her raspy-voiced portrayal of Sisu suits the character well, considering that this dragon has lived for centuries.
Sisu is older and wiser than Raya, and offers some advice about forgiveness that Raya thinks is too naïve. This difference of opinion leads to some mild conflicts between Raya and Sisu, but they remain united in their goal to find the missing pieces of the Dragon Gem. Tran’s portrayal of Raya is relatable and engaging, while Chan also shines in her role as Raya’s enemy Namaari, whose loyalty to her Fang tribe is her greatest motivation and her greatest blind spot.
One of the main themes of Disney princess movies is how girls who seem ordinary can find something extraordinary in themselves during their journeys of self-discovery and while they learn some of life’s biggest lessons. “Raya and the Dragon” falls right in line with this theme. And because this is a Disney animated film, the visuals and the story are top-notch.
Is it a completely perfect movie? No. One of the things that isn’t adequately explained is how Raya and her father Benja seem to be the only people in Heart who are shown in the movie. There’s no real sense of what type of community Raya grew up in and what type of community she would go back to if she returned to Heart. It would have been a little better if the movie showed more of this social context in Heart, instead of making it look like Raya and Benja were the only people who mattered in Heart.
And the way the story is structured, viewers really do need to be paying full attention during the first 10 minutes, or else they’ll miss the informative descriptions of the different lands. (However, for very young kids or people who don’t care about world building, these descriptions won’t matter as much as the adventure story.) Sometimes when a movie has a lot of voice narration in the beginning to explain the plot, it doesn’t work. But fortunately, it works for “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Any of the movie’s minor flaws are far outweighed by this captivating story that is sure to inspire repeat viewings.
Walt Disney Animation Studios released “Raya and the Last Dragon” in U.S. cinemas and for a premium additional price on Disney+ on March 5, 2021.