Hello, everyone! Like many people arbitrarily grouped under the moniker “Gen Z,” I grew up watching and enjoying Disney movies. In the last few years, however, my opinion on Disney has soured, as their greed and questionable practices have become impossible to ignore, and the creative quality of their movies has dramatically declined. I started to wonder how a company like Disney, once renowned for their innovative animation and compelling storytelling, could ever recover.
Raya and the Last Dragon gave me hope that Disney might once again make movies worth watching. With its stunning animation, homage to South Asian cultures, and modern twist on the hero’s journey, Raya is a gorgeous film that demonstrates just how good Disney can be when it gives a damn.
Synopsis: In peaceful times, when dragons roamed the earth, people of all walks of life were united under the prosperous nation of Kumandra. When the Druun emerges, causing havoc and turning people to stone, the dragons unite their magic to ward off evil, and all but Sisu, the last dragon, end up turning into stone. 500 years later, Kumandra is free of the Druun, but has separated into 5 opposing countries, with Heart the only country to possess the magic Dragon Gem. When Naamari, the young princess of Fang, tricks Raya, the princess of Heart, into giving up the location of the Dragon Gem, the gem is broken and the world falls into chaos. Raya’s father is turned into stone, and she must go on a journey to find Sisu, the last dragon, and bring peace back to the world.
My thoughts: Disney has always cornered the market on female-centric hero’s journeys, but up until recently, most of those movies have been romances. Frozen slightly altered the playbook by focusing on two sisters, with the romance between Anna and Sven taking a backseat, and Moana did away with the romance completely, though she shared the screen with her male co-star Maui. In Raya and The Last Dragon, the movie is helmed by two female characters, Raya and Namaari, with their complex relationship driving the plot.
In many ways, Raya succeeds at accomplishing what Frozen tried and failed to do. Both films center on the conflict between two women with different perspectives on the world, but while Frozen stopped portraying Elsa as an antagonist early on in the movie, Namaari remains the antagonist until the penultimate scene of the film. The film also allows Raya and Namaari to have a multi-layered conflict that is usually reserved for relationships between male heroes and their villains. Both are powerful, educated, intelligent, and athletic women with strong ideas about how nations should be run. While Raya’s father taught Raya to value the contributions of other nations, Namaari’s mother has taught her to protect her own nation above all others. It’s Raya’s ready trust of Namaari that allows Namaari to steal the Dragon Gem, and causes Raya to cut herself off from the help of others and withold her trust. And while Namaari is painted as the villain early on, we soon learn that the two women are not too different from each other, and that in another world, might have become fast friends.
What came to mind when watching Raya and Namaari was the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger in Black Panther. Both sets of characters are influenced by their formative years, with Namaari and Killmonger preferring isolationist tendencies, and Raya and T’Challa preferring to be more compassionate and inclusive. It’s refreshing to see Disney princesses, for that’s what these women are, get the same level of complexity in their story as male Marvel superheroes. Additionally, Raya and the Last Dragon takes the genre in a new direction by completely eschewing the traditional path that Disney princess movies usually take. Most Disney princess movies focus on the main characters trying to find their place in the world, and most often landing right back where they came from, with a few revelations in their head and a handsome love interest by their side. Raya is a quest-based film in the vein of Lord of the Rings, and neither of the women are searching for their identities. Instead of trying to find a place for themselves in a world that already exists, Raya and Namaari seek to actively shape their world to fit their visions. It’s this difference between passivity and agency that goes unrecognized in movies about female characters as opposed to movies about male characters. Men change the world, while women change themselves. For once, this movie flips the script.
One truly radical element of the film, at least in comparison to Disney’s rather conservative values, is the character design and characterization of Namaari. Disney has a very specific formula that it relies on when designing female characters. They’ve even been mocked for stamping the same face on all of their female main characters, which is why some people have joked that Rapunzel, Elsa, and Anna could all be sisters. While Raya doesn’t look too different from the traditional Disney design, with her abnormally large eyes, elven chin, and tiny nose, Namaari is a noticeable departure from the mold. With her undercut, athletic build, and androgynous clothing, she is the most “masculine” looking Disney princess that I’ve ever seen. One article lovingly described her aesthetic as the “stuff of soft butch legend.” And while it would be stereotyping to assume that Namaari is gay because of her clothing and haircut, I would hardly call it an accident that Disney designed her that way.
There are no male love interests in Raya, but there are two women whose relationship fits easily into the “enemies to lovers” trope that we’ve seen in other Disney princess films like Tangled and Beauty and the Beast. If Namaari was a man, the chemistry between them wouldn’t be up for debate. But since Namaari is a woman, and this is a Disney film limited by the conservative leanings of its target audience, the film can only allude to romantic feelings between the two. Subtle as these are, they’re still obvious enough for star Kelly Marie Tran to voice her support for a possible romance between the two leads. If the movie’s star has been given free rein to publicly say these once taboo opinions, then I can only assume Disney tacitly approves, or at least, doesn’t think that it will cost them anything to admit to queer representation.
When it comes to the film’s aesthetics, it seems that Disney has surpassed Pixar in creating vibrant new worlds. The landscapes in this film are more vivid than a live-action representation ever could be. Set in a fictional version of South Asia, Kumandra combines cultural elements of a host of different countries, including Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and the Philippines. While the melange of cultures, food, fashion, and architecture means that no country is truly “represented” to the fullest, the overall effect is stunning. I don’t think there’s been an animated movie since Avatar that’s given me the same desire to travel to an animated land. Showing off the value of all these cultures to American audiences serves as an apology for the carelessness that Disney displayed when representing East Asian culture in the 1998 version of Mulan. There are no stereotypes in this movie, no casual racism. Raya and the Last Dragon is a true ode to the wonders of South Asia.
Even when departing from the norm, Disney still relies on a few tired crutches. We have the appearance of Tuk-Tuk, a cuddly pill-bug/dog/armadillo hybrid, named after the slang for an auto-rickshaw, and reminiscent of a spherical Star Wars droid like BB-8. Tuk-Tuk is Raya’s pet and transportation, as no Disney princess is complete without a cute anthropomorphic animal sidekick. Then there’s Sisu, the titular “last dragon.” I haven’t touched on Sisu yet, even though she plays a significant role in the film, because I found her to be pretty annoying. It was as if the writers wanted to write another Mushu from Mulan, but failed in the execution. While Sisu grew on me by the end of the film, I wished they had taken her character in another direction. She was too jokey for my tastes, more like a sidekick than a protagonist, and her character lacked gravity. And if two cutesy sidekicks weren’t enough, there’s also a con-baby thrown in for good measure. What’s a con-baby, you say? A con-man baby. A baby that cons you. Don’t think about it too hard. I definitely didn’t.
When Raya and the Last Dragon relied on these Disney tropes, the movie felt overly cutesy and heavy-handed. But when it leaned into more mature iconography, focusing on the lone traveler trying to save the world, digging into the Spaghetti Western aesthetic, highlighting its incredible combat scenes, and showcasing the complicated relationship between its two female leads, the movie truly shines. It’s a movie that needed Disney to be made, but also one that would have flourished without the weight of such a company’s oppressive thumb. Based on the positive critical and audience reception, a sequel will probably be in the works. For once, I’m actually looking forward to it.