Walt Disney Animation Studios has a rich legacy of blending innovative animation techniques with powerful storytelling. That heritage continues to carry on today, but with more awareness of the diverse world we live in today. They stay true to their principles while also representing marginalized cultures by releasing Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy epic inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, and Disney’s latest animated film to feature their first Southeast Asian princess.
Raya and the Last Dragon likens to Arthurian tales but with more South East Asian sensibilities to create a new kind of legendary hero and culturally specific mythology tied to the story’s universal themes of trust. In the film, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) exposits the history of Kumandra, a fantasy lang where humans and dragons lived in harmony. But when the Druun, a mindless plague born from human discord, turned living things into stone, Sisu (Awkwafina), the sole surviving dragon, concentrated all of her magic into a gem sacrificed herself to save humanity. But instead of being inspired by Sisu’s selfless act, the people fought over the gem, and Kumandra fractures into five lands – all named after parts of a dragon. As a result, it had to be hidden away to prevent further bloodshed.
500 years later, Chief Benja of Heart tries to unite a broken world through peaceful talks and comforting food. A then younger Raya is skeptical that his plan could work given each land’s history of fighting over the gem. And she believes her father’s plans for unification could work after befriending Namaari, a princess from a rival nation of Fang. However, Namaari betrays Raya, and when the rival chiefs fight over control of the gem, they shatter it to pieces and release the Druun, who then petrified everything it touched.
Six years later, the lone warrior Raya embarks on an epic quest to find and revive Sisu, destroy the Druun, and restore humanity. Though Raya successfully brings back Sisu, the dragon admits that she doesn’t live up to her legend. But they discover that if they can reassemble the broken pieces, the Druun will be destroyed. But Namaari (Gemma Chan) is also after the gems. So Raya assembles a ragtag group of misfits consisting of a shrimp boat captain, Boun (Izzac Wang); a con baby Noi (Thalia Tran) and her mischievous critter companion Ongis; and a fearsome warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), and Sisu to help her on her quest all the while learning that a little trust can go a long way to achieve the peace her father wanted.
Raya and the Last Dragon may have this grand Arthurian epic adventure feel to it, especially with its cold opening that mixes the contemporary CGI animation with a colorful kaleidoscope of paper cut-out puppetry. It then transitions to this Indiana Jones-esque sequence where she has to use TukTuk, her trusty pill bug friend, to help her avoid setting off deadly traps. It is our first look at how Raya, a spirited warrior eager to be a part of her family’s legacy of protecting the gem. And all of that is set against the backdrop of Southeast Asian cultures, where its imagery ranging from the costumes, food, architecture, landscape, skin tones, and voices – to a certain extent – are woven into the very fabric of the film.
Though it contains cultural specificities, the universal theme of trust resonates worldwide, especially now when it feels as fractured as the fictional Kumandra itself. That theme constantly reverberates throughout the film in obvious and subtle ways. And it is not easy to address such a dense and nuanced theme in an animated film such as Raya. But writers and producers Adele Lim and Qui Ngyuen make sure it is tied into the visuals in a way that makes it accessible. It is symbolized when Chief Benja uses various ingredients from rival lands to cook a delicious Tom Yum soup. Other times the idea is abundantly clear as Raya starts to build her fellowship. Then there are the other times where Raya and her friends experience moments of distrust. However, it then circles back to what could happen when we see the good in people despite their allegiances and duty to serve their land.
It is easy to see why Raya is such a hardened lone warrior with extreme trust issues. She has survived independently for so long with nobody, but now larger Tuktuk, to rely on. But it becomes clear that she won’t get very far if she doesn’t start trusting people who share the same losses and want the same things as her. So the film doesn’t only draw inspiration from previous Disney animation titles and Indiana Jones. It also draws from Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales.
Those Arthurian tales are very much like the film’s use of Southeast Asian cultures. There is an overlap of various cultures from the Southeast Asian region that accentuates representation and serves the story. Tuktuk is an actual mode of transportation in Thailand. There are foods like Durian – the infamous stinky fruit, lapis, Tom Yum soup, and chicken sate also play a role, not just for a delicious aesthetic, but to drive home the film’s central theme of trust. And it is also seen in the clothes like Raya’s salakot headgear and the temples, landscapes, and shadow puppetry. All of that is done to create a new kind of legend where Southeast Asians can see themselves. It’s hard to believe that all those tangible details are animated.
And it wouldn’t be much of a Disney epic adventure without some explosive action. To stay true to the film’s setting, Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan) use martial arts and weaponry specific to the region. Namaari is an excellent foil to Raya, as both of them are opposite sides of the same coin. Both are doing what they believe is right for their respective lands. That comes through in their martial art bouts, inspired by authentic Southeast Asian styles such as Thailand’s Muy Thai, Indonesia’s Pencak silat, and the Philippine’s Arnis. Their mutual love for dragons reveals what becomes of finding commonality and how hate isn’t an inherited trait but something that is learned and must be unlearned. I can’t speak more about that relationship, but seeing it from a new perspective and through a cultural lens can only redefine what it means to be a strong female.
The film also makes use of Awkwafina’s comedic styles. Sisu has this warm and inviting personality as she sees the good in everyone despite knowing nothing about them. Though she may be a bit hilariously clumsy at times, her movements are as slick as the rhymes she spits out. And Sisu, whether she is in dragon or human form, allows Awkwafina to express her comedic talents while also bringing in a sense of humanity to the role.
Seeing those unique cultural aesthetics be represented authentically carries a lot of emotional weight for Southeast Asians who have been eagerly waiting to see themselves and their culture on screen in a way that shows the world they are not a monolith. Although that doesn’t ring true in the voice cast. Awkwafina, Gemma Chang, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, and Benedict Wong are all of East Asian decent. Despite what they have done to pave the way for proper representation and equal opportunity for Asians, and how much they are both like their characters in terms of leadership figures and reputation, Raya and the Last Dragon would greatly benefit from casting actors who look like their characters. It also strengthens the notion that not only can Southeast Asians see themselves in these characters, but they can hear themselves in them too.
In many ways, Raya and the Last Dragon deals with themes of trust both on-screen and behind the scenes. The film was made in the midst of the pandemic last year and had its own ragtag team putting it all together. Lim and Ngyuen brought their lives into the story, while director Don Hall brought in his experience as a veteran animation director, with co-director Carlos Lopez Estrada bringing in his own experience as an indie filmmaker. Of course, credit also goes to the rest of the cast and crew, some of whom are also Southeast Asian, who helped make the film pay respect to the culture they are depicting while also carrying on Disney’s legacy for fantastic animation and emotional storytelling.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a breathtaking and emotional story that may have culturally specific aesthetics and its universal theme of trust that will resonate with everyone who watches it. Though a bit flawed when it comes to its casting decisions, it celebrates Southeast Asians in a way where they can no longer be treated as a monolith. And that is something this Chinese-Indonesian American can appreciate.