Film Review: “Raya and the Last Dragon” — An Animated Plea for Unity

By Cyrisse Jaffee

In addition to generalizations about Asian cultures — the voice actors come from a variety of Asian, but not all Southeast Asian, backgrounds — there are other issues a grown-up viewer might object to.

Raya and the Last Dragon, directed by Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall. Screening at AMC Boston Common 19 and Streaming on Disney+.

A scene from Raya and the Last Dragon.

Set in the fictional world of Kumandra, the latest Disney animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, was “inspired by” a variety of Southeast Asian cultures. While the lack of specificity may offend some, others may find the nods to the diverse cultures effective. According to the website “…the filmmakers took research trips to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia to ground themselves in the cultures they hoped to represent.” The writers included Malaysian writer Adele Lim, Vietnamese writer Qui Nguyen, and Thai writer Fawn Veerasunthorn. The film was directed by Carlos López Estrada, who was born in Mexico, and Don Hall.

In interviews, the team defends its decision to use a “melting pot” approach and insists that its value is reflected in the meaning of the movie itself. Qui Nguyen says in an interview in /Film: “And I think that that’s actually what makes our movie so unique, is that it is accepting that a whole bunch of different people with unique perspectives that sometimes clashed into each other, and how we use trust to come together for a greater good, to find our commonality, to find our unity. I think that that was the bigger thing that we’re working towards.”

So, does the film achieve that “bigger thing”? The message in the movie couldn’t be clearer. The idyllic land of Kumandra, where everyone gets along and dragons flourish, was destroyed 500 years before by the Druun, a “mindless plague” that feeds on conflict and greed, turning everyone to stone. The dragon’s power remains inside a magical Dragon Gem, guarded by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in the kingdom of Heart. When Ba, as Raya calls him, tries to unite the five kingdoms — Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, Heart — he is betrayed by Chief Virana (Sandra Oh). Her daughter, Namaari (Gemma Chan), tricks Raya into revealing the gem, which shatters as each chief steals a piece, plunging the world into chaos again. Raya begins a six-year quest to find the last dragon, who is rumored to be alive, to try and make her father’s dream come true: to come together to build a better world.

The usual high jinks ensue. Along with her trusty sidekick Tuk Tuk (who looks like a June bug crossed with a hamster and conveniently turns into a vehicle, a nod to the small vehicles called tuk-tuk in Sri Lanka), Raya accumulates allies from the different kingdoms (including an adorable but wily baby) as she is chased by the scheming Namaari. Of course, she finds the last dragon, Sisugatu (Sisu), who is wonderfully voiced by Awkwafina. Together the ragtag band recover all the pieces of the Dragon Stone. In the climactic scene (spoiler alert!), Raya must put her trust in Namaari in order to make the Dragon Stone whole. Lo and behold, everyone comes back to life and Kumandra is restored.

Although Raya’s decision to trust Namaari yet again seemed implausible, my 6-year-old companion was unfazed. “She wants to make her father’s dream come true,” she assured me. The film’s big pluses fall into line with recent Disney trends. Both Raya and Sisu are appealing heroines — brave, smart, funny, strong. (The villains are female, too.) The animation and scene-setting are fabulous (better on a big screen for sure), as is the voice acting. The dialogue is the usual mix of well-meaning platitudes, earnest musings, and jokes.

In addition to generalizations about Asian cultures — the voice actors come from a variety of Asian, but not all Southeast Asian, backgrounds — there are other issues a grown-up viewer might object to. Big-eyed Sisu is more of a Muppet than a dragon; one wishes for a fiercer side and less of a stuffed animal look. And if only Raya’s nemesis, Namaari, wasn’t the one to boast a punkish undercut hairstyle and ear clips, with eyes that are more almond-shaped than many of the other characters. Even though she comes through in the end, wouldn’t it have been great if it was Raya who looked that rebellious? Oh well, maybe Disney will get there one day. After all, as they say in the film, “Someone has to take the first step.”

Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.

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