Raya battles enemies, unites friends, and saves the world-No Crown, glass slipper or Prince Charming in sight
Raya and the last Dragon tells of a time humans and dragons co-existed, living side by side in peace and prosperity. An ancient evil known as the Druun, (which takes the appearance of a purple fog,), threatens all existence. The last remaining dragons combine their magic to form a powerful crystal which banishes the Drunn from the land. The Dragons don’t survive the process but the magical Dragon crystal they created does. In typical fashion, humans fight for control of this powerful magical item and end up divided, fighting for a piece of this magic. In doing so, they also curse their once prosperous world of Kamandra to war and suffering.
Raya has been trained by her father Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Day Kim) all her life to be a defender of the Dragon crystal. But rather than become a miserable, one note character, she is vibrant, joyful, and full of wonder and curiosity about the world around her. She is strong, skilled, kind, and polite. She is rational and sensible while also being capable of rage and loss of control.
In Raya and the Last Dragon, the once peaceful land of Kamandra is split up into 5 waring lands, named after parts of the Dragon: Spine, heart, Talon, Fang, Tail. These lands are inspired by countries within Southeast Asia and design is heavily influenced by Asian culture and mythology.
Each tribe believe they have a claim to the crystal and after its accidentally broken, they all take a piece back to their own land. The lands themselves are almost their own characters in the film, from expansive dessert environments, vibrant towns, to abandoned ghost like villages. All beautifully crafted to leave an impression.
Raya and the Last Dragon is an exciting sprawling adventure that somehow manages to be both 100% Disney but also not your typical Disney. Over the last few years, Disney have done much to modernise their on-screen representations of women, doing their utmost to find the balance between more realistic character portrayals while maintaining the fantasy elements children aspire to. Raya is the result, a character who is amazingly capable while remaining relatable.
Kelly Marie Tran voices the lead character Raya. Her voice work brings an immediate warmth and connection to the character which serves as a solid foundation for the rest of the movie.
There have long been protests for change and better representation of all people on and off screen. While some companies have been loud in their pledges to change, Disney have been slowly and quietly making these changes behind the scenes. The pace of change may not be to everyone’s liking, but a slow more organic shift has better chance of sticking and becoming the ‘new norm’, as opposed to a short sharp shock.
I have seen little from Disney in the press about Raya being a ‘strong woman’, or regarding the fact an animated film featuring Asian characters is voiced by a cast of almost entirely Asian descent. In an ideal world, these elements shouldn’t be a factor, but their past absence means they are relevant. Its commendable that not only have Disney achieved this, but they have managed to keep the focus on the quality of the film rather than letting it be seen as some sort of one off ‘affirmative action’ film.
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Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantastic, animated feature with a quality story, beautiful direction, and a great cast of fun characters. Of particular note is the Last Dragon herself Sisu, voiced by comedian Awkwafina, who’s delivery brought a real joy and playfulness to the screen. The only thing I felt was missing from this film were some traditional Disney songs. One or two classic musical numbers could have moved this up to ‘Disney classic’ region. Since this is the team behind Moana and Frozen, it was strange they didn’t go down the musical route. Maybe Lin-Manuel Miranda was busy!
Raya may appear to be just another Disney princess to some but if you look just a bit deeper, you will realise she is the product of a Disney determined to retain the fairy tales and magic that made them while shifting away from the sometimes-distasteful stereotypes they may have been associated with in the past.
Raya is a young lady not in need of saving. She doesn’t have superhuman strength, takes many hits and occasionally gets knocked down. She makes silly mistakes and loses her temper when angered. But she is also a skilled fighter, a compassionate young lady and a loyal friend. She’s not looking for a beautiful castle or a Prince charming. Infact, she’s not looking for love at all. She’s just out to save the world and her father in the process. Raya is the next generation of Princess, leading Disney bravely into its future.