The first-ever Southeast Asian Disney princess has arrived, and she’s ready to join the House Of Mouse’s iconic pantheon. Raya And The Last Dragon is written by Malaysian-born screenwriter Adele Lim and it shows. Even without the novelty of its Southeast Asian elements, this is a brilliant animated movie by its own merits.
Southeast Asian Pride
As a Malaysian and Southeast Asian, the novelty of a movie like Raya And The Last Dragon is simply unavoidable. Yes, the movie takes place in a fictional world, but it clearly borrows elements from many Southeast Asian countries and cultures without specifically mentioning any single one.
You’ll recognise local foods, clothing and weapons like satay, what appears to be tom yam, batik, shadow puppets (wayang kulit) and the keris. Those are just several that I personally noticed and identified, but I’m sure my fellow Malaysians and Southeast Asians from other countries will be able to find even more easter eggs and references hidden in the minute details of this movie. Proper representation matters. Seeing the characters in skin tones and traditional clothing similar to ours gave me a warm feeling all around.
In terms of the plot and story, Raya And The Last Dragon reminds me a lot like Avatar The Last Airbender (or The Legend Of Aang) and that’s no coincidence. Raya And The Last Dragon was probably inspired in some way by the aforementioned legendary animated series. They both share similar worldbuilding and themes (like a world split into five lands/nations, and just replace the Avatar with the dragon Sisu).
Raya lives in a fictional land once known as Kumandra; a unified nation where humans and dragons co-existed in harmony. Five hundred years ago, a monster called the Druun arrived and terrorized Kumandra, turning people and dragons to stone. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity using the Dragon Gem. When humanity fought amongst themselves over who would hold the Dragon Gem, Kumandra broke into five different lands, each of which is named after a different part of the dragon: Heart, Tail, Spine, Talon, and Fang.
While the central plot is predictable and somewhat formulaic, the themes explored in this movie are not. It’s certainly ambitious at times, dealing with the concept of trust and enmity between different cultures, as well as issues relating to grief, loss, forgiveness and death. The enmity between the different lands and culture of Kumandra is timely and scarily reminiscent of today’s world, where societies around the world are dominated by fear and paranoia.
No one trusts each other anymore; not even the different countries in Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Singapore, and the like. Kumandra mirrors that situation and while children won’t notice it, the lesson will definitely hit harder for older viewers who may have forgotten what it’s like to trust and forgive again.
For instance, Raya isn’t your typical upbeat and optimistic Disney princess. She’s cynical and suffers from severe trust issues. Still, this is a Disney animated movie. That doesn’t stop her from being good at martial arts and being a strong role model for young girls. In fact, she’s actually better for it, as her issues make her more relatable, especially to older viewers. Unlike other Disney princesses, she’s not here to find love or discover her true self. In line with the Southeast Asian theme, she strives to save the collective (humanity), not for her own personal benefit or gratification.
Also, Raya and her companions are together with shared grief or trauma. You don’t often see that in western animated movies. They’re all doing this not just for themselves, but for the good of everyone else. Because there’s no romance, it makes the relationships between the characters more meaningful and stronger.
I’ll have to praise Kelly Marie Tran for an excellently emotional performance as Raya. Some of you might not even recognise her voice, especially if you’ve only seen her in the Star Wars sequels. Trust me, she’s capable of so much more than Rose and she proves it here. It may be fair (or unfair, depending on your opinion) to point out that the voice cast largely consists of those with East Asian ancestry and not actual Southeast Asian. Fortunately, they all do a good enough job, including Gemma Chan as Princess Namaari and Awkwafina as the dragon Sisu.
Last but not least, the animation (as usual) is stellar. The fight scenes and choreography are highlights of the movie. Where else can you see a Disney princess wielding a keris and engaging in a fighting style similar to silat? We love to see it.
One of the biggest flaws in Raya And The Last Dragon is its music. As a whole, the soundtrack by James Newton Howard isn’t terrible, but none of the tracks really stand out. Compared to the likes of Moana or Frozen 2, you won’t leave the cinemas humming your favourite tune from the movie.
The reason for Raya And The Last Dragon‘s middling soundtrack is likely because it’s less of a musical and more of a fantasy epic. None of the characters here go into song or suddenly start singing spontaneously.
Another criticism that I can point out is the pacing of the movie. Raya And The Last Dragon sometimes moves at a pace that’s too fast, spouting exposition that doesn’t feel as natural. It’s not a glaring problem, but some younger viewers may find the movie a bit harder to follow and keep up with (especially since there are no songs to break up the movie’s acts).
The Best Disney Princess Since The Original Mulan
Raya And The Last Dragon is vibrant and amazing, not just for its Southeast Asian elements, but for being a good fantasy epic animated movie that introduces what might be the best Disney princess since 1998’s Mulan. It’s definitely worth checking out, especially for my fellow Malaysians and Southeast Asians.
FINAL SCORE: 90/100
We received an early access screener of Raya And The Last Dragon courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Malaysia. It is now showing in Malaysia cinemas.