Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ a fiery masterpiece or burnt out?

By Rachel Ly, March 23, 2021

Disney’s new animated, action-packed film, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” stays consistently captivating as it burns down barriers by introducing a Southeast Asian princess and characters, representing a mix of Asian cultures that are often forgotten in pop culture.

The movie shies away from the stereotypical narrative of a lonely princess waiting for her prince charming to save her. Instead, it introduces Raya as a warrior and appointed guardian of the Dragon Gem within the first 10 minutes of the movie.

The adventure begins when Raya’s father and chief of the tribe, Heart, intends to reunite the surrounding tribes to create “Kumandra” — the word used to describe unification in general. After inviting the other tribes over for dinner, they all turn against each other and battle for the Dragon Gem.

The gem eventually breaks, releasing a fog-like creature into the world with the intention of turning everyone it touches into stone. It is up to Raya to unite the people of surrounding tribes, while also relying on each other to help battle this creature.

All of the cultures and traditions seen in the film are based on the countries of Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia. Disney incorporates traditional food, architecture, clothes and language in the film from these cultures, allowing the audience to get a glimpse of a variety of customs. Kelly Marie Tran, the voice actress of Raya, is the first Vietnamese lead in a Disney animated film.

Off the bat, Disney used real words from different countries to name the characters — like Raya, meaning “celebration” in Malay and “one who leads” in the southern part of Thailand. She refers to her father as “Ba,” which means “father” in Vietnamese. The name of the youngest character, “Noi,” means “little” in Thai. The use of multiple languages within the movie is representative of each country the film drives inspiration from.

In many Asian countries, food is of utmost importance. Jasmine rice, a common staple in Southeast Asian countries, is seen in many of the scenes. The significance of cuisine is captured within the movie by featuring Thailand’s popular dish, Tom Yum Soup and Beef Rendang, a Malaysian specialty. In many scenes, food is used to unite characters and share moments of peace between the action.

“Raya” also successfully captured the tropical and jungle-like environments of Southeast Asian countries perfectly. The amount of greenery that intertwines with architecture is representative of real-life locations. The characters and their features looked nearly life-like.

Although Disney made many wonderful strides toward the right direction, there were some flaws. One of the biggest critiques about the movie is the lack of music. It is the only Disney princess film that does not have a signature soundtrack within the film.

At the end credits of the movie, a soundtrack by R&B singer Jhene Aiko is featured but never plays during the movie. If Disney included music in the movie, it would have taken the screenplay to the next level — from great to legendary. Many Disney princess films include songs that eventually become classics, adding to the longevity of the movie.

Additionally, Asian voice actors in the movie were involved in the making of the film, but most of them were not of Southeast Asian descent. There is already a lack of Asian representation in Hollywood with lighter-skinned Asians, like Chinese, Korean and Japanese, typically obtaining the spotlight.

Overall, Disney impressed the audience with its close attention to detail, capturing the essence of Southeast Asian countries. The storyline and animation of the film is enticing. Despite the casting issues and lack of music, Disney stepped out of the box by creating a truly admirable set of characters and dazzling plot, making the film a must-watch.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is available on Disney Plus for $29.99, additional to the monthly subscription.

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