When the trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon came out, so many people posted reaction videos on Instagram and YouTube, most notably among these reactors were Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina who voice Raya and Sisu, respectively. Their reactions mirrored the excitement of people across the Internet, and that got me hyped up as well.
Raya and the Last Dragon is an animated fantasy action film set in the fantasy land of Kumandra where humans and dragons lived together peacefully. One day long ago, the Druun, sinister monsters, began to threaten the land, and the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the human race. Now, 500 years later, the same monsters have returned and it’s up to Raya to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
Visually, the film was great at highlighting different Southeast Asian architecture and aesthetics. They showcased beautiful arches and carvings that were reminiscent of Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian temples. Traditional homes, like the bahay kubo, could be seen in the background. The rice terraces and floating markets that are so popular in Laos, Thailand, and Indonesia also feature heavily in the film.
A variety of Southeast Asian martial arts were used in combat scenes, like Namaari’s Krabi-Krabong from Thailand, Raya’s Pencak Silat from Indonesia, Muay Thai from Thailand, Võ Thuật from Vietnam, and Arnis from the Philippines. You’ll also spot a lot of food that’s familiar to us like mangosteens, longans, durian, rice, and even shrimp paste. There was also high praise for our national fruit, the mango!
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Disney and their team heavily marketed Raya and the Last Dragon as a Southeast Asian-inspired story, and while this was true, it was very lazy storytelling. It was very reminiscent of Avatar the Last Airbender, and not as well done. An orb containing all of the dragons’ magic is what was used to defeat and contain the Druun the first time, and it was housed in the Land of Heart, where Raya belongs.
The opening scene showcases what looks to be a heist by Raya and her pet, Tuktuk. The heist reveals the hiding place of the glowing orb, where she battles her father to reach the orb, as part of her training. She and her father are now the two “Protectors of the Dragons” as she succeeds in touching the inner circle. The orb is seen as the most powerful weapon out there instead of something that’s protecting them, so the other tribes want it for themselves. Raya’s father, Chief Benja, still hopes to change the minds of the tribes, hoping to become one Kumandra, and instilling in Raya the belief that unity is possible.
People from different tribes gather at the Land of Heart for what is meant to be a peace summit while the adults are resistant, saying that the Land of Heart can ask for unity because the most powerful weapon is in their possession. Raya is able to form a connection with Namaari, the daughter of Queen Virana, the Land of Fang’s queen, and the only other child there. This gives hope for peace and everybody goes to eat.
During dinner, Namaari and Raya discover that they are both dragon-nerds, sharing their love for the dragons. Namaari shows a map of Kumandra that shows the hundred or so rivers where Sisu, the last surviving dragon may have fallen when she saved the people from the Druun, and as a sign of friendship, gives Raya the dragon pendant she has been wearing.
Raya, wishing to repay the generosity, brings Namaari to the secret location of the magical orb. Namaari attacks Raya in an effort to take the orb, but unable to defeat Raya, she sends out a flare so her mother and their warriors can take the orb. Chief Benja sees this and quickly realizes what is happening, but so does the entire dinner party and they rush towards it.
While Chief Benja defends the orb alongside Raya, he pleas with the tribes to become one instead. During his plea, chaos ensues with the different chief tribes fighting over the magic orb, which causes it to fall to the ground and shatter into 5 pieces, thus unleashing the Druun. Each tribe grabs a piece and runs as the Druun threaten to turn them into stone, but Chief Benja is able to protect Raya and himself for a short while by waving the piece of the orb in their face. They also realize the Druun don’t like water.
As they slowly make their escape from the Land of Heart, Chief Benja realizes that he must protect Raya and the orb, so he gives Raya the orb, reminds her that she is a Protector of the Dragons and tosses her over the bridge and into the river. Raya watched the Druun turn her father into stone as she crashes into the water.
Six years later, we see Raya traveling through a dessert very reminiscent of Star Wars landscapes. She’s spent the past few years still searching for Sisu, hoping that the missing dragon can undo the Druun’s curse, and undo the evil magic that turned the people to stone. She finally finds Sisu, but the dragon doesn’t realize it’s been 500 years since she disappeared, and as Raya asks her for help to fix everything, Sisu reveals that she doesn’t actually know how the orb worked in the first place.
Raya reveals her broken piece of the orb and as Sisu holds it, she realizes that each piece lends her the power of one of her siblings. She travels with Raya to take the other 3 pieces of the orb that have been scattered through Kumandra. They are trailed by Namaari and a few warriors, hoping to capture the pieces before Raya can.
They find the piece taken by the Chief of the Tail. This piece of the orb gives Sisu the power to shapeshift into a human, so when Namaari finds them, she is unaware that Raya has found the dragon they bonded over as children. Sisu and Raya are able to get away from Namaari and the warriors by jumping on a congee ship owned by a young boy named Boun.
Namaari goes to her mother and reports Raya’s missions of making the orb whole again, hopeful that her mother would be excited but Queen Virana warns her instead. Who will the tribes blame for the years of suffering after the shattering of the orb? The Land of Fang of course. They must be the ones to collect all the pieces of the orb.
In the Land of Talon, Raya picks up a con-baby and her monkeys while Sisu is tricked by the new Chief of the Talon into a Druun enclosure created to punish the tribesmen who disobey the law. However, they do get the third piece of the orb from the Chief. The fourth piece is in the snowy mountains of the Land of Spine, where Raya and Sisu are caught in another trap set up by the intimidating Tong.
They manage to escape and as Raya prepares to defend themselves against the people of Spine, she sees that the entire tribe has been turned to stone and Tong is the sole survivor. Tong offers to help them on their mission, but Namaari once again shows up to battle Raya and take the pieces of the orb for the Land of Fang. This is where Sisu reveals herself as a dragon to their gang of orphans and to Namaari so that they can escape safely.
Sisu appeals to Raya to give Namaari another chance and appeal to the true desire that Namaari has to unite Kumandra. Despite her better judgment, Raya gives in to Sisu’s appeal and secretly sends a message, as well as a peace offering to Namaari – the dragon pendant she gave Raya when they first met. Raya asked for her to bring the last and largest piece of the orb to a secret meeting.
Namaari sends up a flare signalling to Raya that she would help. Namaari indeed brought the last piece of the stone, and Sisu reveals herself to Namaari once again, only to have an arrow pointed at her by the warrior of Fang. Sisu asks Raya to wait, pleading with Namaari to look into her heart, but Namaari ends up shooting Sisu in the chest. Sisu falls into the river as the pieces of the orb are now dimming. Namari runs back to the temple in the Land of Fang with their piece of the orb in her hands.
The water, which once protected the Land of Fang is now disappearing allowing the Druun to attack them at full force. An enraged Raya picks up a piece of the dimming orb and seeks vengeance on Namaari who has just discovered her mother turned to stone. Boun and the rest of the gang head to the village to save as many people as possible, each picking up a piece in order to defend themselves.
Raya and Namaari end up in an epic fight as the temple crumbles around them, while the gang valiantly tries to save as many people as possible. Raya sacrifices her stone, claiming trusting each other is the key to saving everyone, pleading the others do the same to put the stone back together. We see Namaari turn away. But she does come back and pulls the pieces of the orb together in her hands before she turns to stone.
The orb begins to glow and we quickly see dragons appear and undo the curse of the Druun. The dragons are even able to bring Sisu back to life, and she’s reunited with all her siblings. Everyone returns to their own lands to find their families and friends and tribesmen turned back to living, breathing humans. Even Raya is reunited with her father. The end scene shows people from the different lands coming to the Land of Heart, now willing to become one Kumandra again.
I was extremely disappointed, to say the least.
Establishing the relationship between the dragons and the people of Kumandra was a quick explanation that didn’t really inspire awe. Raya and her father’s relationship is featured for maybe 10 minutes before he is quickly taken out of the story. While it is clear that there are tensions among the tribes, it all felt very shallow.
While we see a glimpse of the variety of cultures throughout Raya’s adventures into Talon, Tail, and Spine, there’s no true immersion. A quick blink and you wouldn’t even have realized she was there. The only reason we see and appreciate a little bit more of Heart and Fang is because those are where both of the major battles occur.
The characters and friends she meets along the way are meant to inspire empathy. You’re meant to share in their loss, as the release of the Druun has taken away their family and most of their tribe, but because they try to have a character represent different parts of Southeast Asia, you don’t really have enough time to fall in like with any of them enough to really care.
Namaari’s mother, as the leader of the Land of Fang shows no remorse or regret for what their actions have wrought upon Kumandra, and even when she is turned to stone, I cannot find it in myself to feel pity for Namaari’s loss of a parent, in fact, it was such a blip in the film, unless she brought it up during the big fight scene, you would have totally forgotten it happened.
And the fact that Namaari did not even pause to think of how painful it would have been for Raya when she lost her father because of the actions of the Fang tribe makes me like Namaari even less. I don’t care that she eventually did the right thing. In my eyes, she found no redemption.
The cultures showcased were so blended together it felt quite muddy and I felt like they had done so much research to make the film beautiful, but not enough into the actual practices or culture to keep me interested. According to producer Osnat Shurer in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “the importance of ‘we’ over ‘I,’” allows for a collective celebration of various Southeast Asian cultures.
But I disagree, why do so many Disney stories take time to highlight specific Western cultures but have no time to properly represent Asian, and more specifically Southeast Asian cultures? In their rush for inclusivity, they kind of just left me wanting — wanting of the richness and depth in storytelling that Southeast Asian stories deserve.
And again, I’ve talked about this here, for a film to showcase Southeast Asia, and have only one Southeast Asian actor, Kelly Marie Tran, voice a major character in the film feels like a slap in the face, no? We want great films that showcase Southeast Asian talents and culture, not films that are deemed “great” just because they showcase Southeast Asian talents and culture when in reality they are subpar. The tv and film industry has to do better for the minorities they want to represent and stop giving us films and shows just to appease the want for representation.