Raya and the Last Dragon: A Review of Disney’s Latest Animated Film

How one movie can entangle you in a magical journey filled with meaningful lessons and unforgettable friendships, while also empowering females and providing on-screen representation for Southeast Asians everywhere.

Raya+and+the+Last+Dragon%2C+which+premiered+on+March+5th%2C+2021%2C+teaches+viewers+the+importance+of+trust%2C+forgiveness%2C+and+unity+amid+a+world+torn+apart+by+hatred+and+division.+

Kaitlyn Chan

Raya and the Last Dragon, which premiered on March 5th, 2021, teaches viewers the importance of trust, forgiveness, and unity amid a world torn apart by hatred and division.

 At age five, I watched Prince Charming fall in love with Cinderella as she arrived at the ball in her elegant blue gown and petite glass slippers. I watched him save her from her evil stepfamily and whisk her away to an extravagant life in the royal palace, transforming her rags into riches. 

At age seven, I watched Ariel exchange her freedom and voice for a man she barely knew. I watched her disobey her father, ignore the advice of her friends, and give up the only life that she had ever known, all in the pursuit of “love” (which, in actuality, was blinding infatuation). 

At age eight, I watched Aurora prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep. I watched a prince swoop in to save the day; I watched him be the hero, defeat the villain, and  break the curse while the princess was left to play the role of the helpless victim that could only be awakened with “true love’s kiss.” 

And the list does not end there. For decades, Disney has diminished women and promoted harmful, patriarchal gender stereotypes through their portrayal of princesses as weak, vulnerable damsels in distress and princes as strong, heroic saviors. By illustrating female protagonists to be flawless in appearance and having them conform to this “damsels in distress” stereotype, these movies convey an extremely detrimental message to their young audiences — that women are powerless and incapable of taking action on their own; that they depend upon a man to rescue them and provide them with happiness; and that they must look a certain way in order to catch the attention of a “prince.” 

That, however, is what makes Disney’s newest animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, so incredibly groundbreaking. From its empowerment of females to the diverse range of skin tones and body types amongst its characters, this movie truly stands out from previous Disney Princess films in that it takes a completely opposite approach in how it portrays and characterizes its female characters. 

Taking place in Kumandra, an enchanted land divided amongst five kingdoms — Fang, Talon, Tail, Spine, and Heart — Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the daughter of Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) and the princess of Heart, as she journeys on a mission to defeat the Druun, an evil, relentless plague that turns every living creature in its path into stone. 

The first emergence of the Druun occurred centuries prior, back when Kumandra was a united kingdom and humans and dragons lived together in harmony. To save humanity, a group of dragons combined their magic to form a gem, known as the Dragon Gem, that had the power to defeat the Druun. Though the gem did successfully fend off the Druun, it resulted in an aftermath in which all dragons were turned into stone. Moreover, due to greed and conflict over who was to acquire and possess the gem, the once united Kumandra was then divided into five kingdoms. 

The Dragon Gem eventually came under the protection of Heart. Raya earns the role of Guardian of the Dragon Gem as a young girl – a duty that was passed down from her father to her. The princess however, is later betrayed by her close friend Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), to whom she had shared in confidence the location of the Dragon Gem. Namaari reveals this information to the other tribes, who arrive at the location and fight over possession of the orb. This results in the Gem being broken into five pieces, thus unleashing the Druun upon Kumandra. As a result of the Druun’s awakening, many are turned into stone — among whom include Chief Benja. To save her father and eliminate the Druun once and for all, Raya endeavors on a journey to retrieve the broken pieces and reassemble the gem while also reuniting the divided, rivaling kingdoms of Kumandra. 

With exceptional martial arts skills, unparalleled resilience, and a love for adventure, Raya is quite a force to be reckoned with. Her feisty personality, sharp wit, strong leadership, and unwavering determination even when faced with the greatest of challenges show that she is anything but a “damsel in distress.” She proves to be one of Disney’s fiercest princesses yet, making her a remarkable role model for young girls. 

Adele Lim, who co-wrote Raya and the Last Dragon alongside Qui Nguyen, wanted Raya to stand out and be different from the typical heroines and female protagonists often seen in Hollywood films. “Those in Hollywood movies tend to be, you know, very attractive, physically very capable, but also very stoic. Like they don’t really crack jokes, there isn’t like a depth, or warmth, or humanity to them. And we knew that we didn’t want that for Raya. I didn’t know any girls that perfect as I was growing up. And so with Raya, we wanted a very different character, and in an intellectual way we kind of knew that it wasn’t scripting and visual development to be like, well this is what she looks like,” Lim said in an interview with ‘Slash Film.’

However, Raya is not the only powerful female character in the movie. In fact, the movie consists of Disney’s most female-based cast yet, featuring multiple strong and independent women — among whom include Namaari, who, in addition to being Raya’s former friend rival, is also the princess of Fang; Virana, Namaari’s mother and the chief of Fang; and Little Noi, a mischievous and cunning con-baby who accompanies Raya on her journey. By doing so, Raya and the Last Dragon normalizes the concept of female warriors and women being in positions of power, influence, and leadership. 

“At no point in the movie is the fact that they are women held against them or seen as an obstacle that needed to be overcome,” said screenwriter Qui Nguyen. “They are free, fully fleshed-out characters. They have their own journeys, their own personal arcs, their own missions to accomplish, and it has nothing to do with the fact that they are women. Our characters are female. That’s part of their identity, but it is not their soul, defining trait.”

Accompanying Raya on her mission to defeat the Druun is another powerful female character — Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the last living dragon in Kumandra. During her journey, Raya embarks on a quest through the kingdom of Tail to find the water dragon, hoping that Sisu can help her save Kumandra and her father from the malicious plague. Sisu is funny and goofy, and you will often find her character making many self-deprecating jokes and wisecracks throughout the movie. Her humor adds an incredibly lighthearted and entertaining touch to the movie, and I can guarantee that with this movie, it will not be long before the room is filled with smiles and laughter. 

Along the way, the duo (and Tuk Tuk — Raya’s part-pillbug part-pug part-armadillo pet, because of course, what’s a Disney princess without their iconic animal companion?) also come across a young entrepreneur named Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang), Little Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) and her rambunctious band of monkeys known as Ongis, as well as a formidable warrior named Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong). With such an unlikely and eccentric group of characters, working together is bound to be a challenge.

One of the most striking aspects of the movie is the profound complexity and depth behind the characters and the dynamic of their relationships to one another. In the words of voice actress Thalia Tran, “There’s no black and white in these characters.” The film is unique in that it explores the individual convictions, motivations, values, and flaws — the heart and soul — that shape and define each character, as well as how they evolve over the course of the story. 

Raya and the Last Dragon does an especially phenomenal job in illustrating Raya’s character development as well as the evolution of her and Namaari’s relationship. While on the surface, Raya is an incredibly fierce and skilled warrior, we see later on as the story progresses that there is much more to her than meets the eye. Unlike most classic Disney princesses, which are portrayed as epitomes of perfection, Raya is flawed. Having been betrayed by her closest friend, she struggles to trust and be vulnerable with others, instead choosing to build up walls and isolate herself from her comrades. It is these flaws that make her a much more genuine, nuanced, and three-dimensional character. Raya’s relatability and authenticity allows viewers to connect with her on a more sincere level. And most importantly, by representing a more accurate and realistic portrayal of strong and independent women, she empowers young girls to embrace their flaws and be themselves. 

The complicated love-hate nature of Raya and Namaari’s relationship is another highlight of the film. Though Namaari is initially painted as an antagonist, she is not your typical Disney villain who is evil or malicious or intent on causing chaos. In many respects, Namaari is just like Raya — she is a leader who simply wants to protect her people. Rather, the tension between the two is personal, stemming from their broken friendship and a long, convoluted history filled with betrayal, hurt, and anger. By doing so, this movie delves into and provides insight on the complexities of female relationships and friendships — a theme that is not discussed or depicted enough in the entertainment industry. 

“[V]ery early on, even with our directors [it was important] that there was a female buddy friendship at the heart of an action movie,” Lim said. “That’s something you don’t often see, and we knew we wanted to celebrate that. But also with the relationship of Namaari, the villain, she is not like a random girl who wants to just tear things down…She is somebody that Raya has history with, that there were times where they could have been friends. And now that they have this combative relationship but they are really different sides of the same coin, because Namaari too, like Raya, in the world could have been a future leader [and] cares deeply about the land, about her people…they have this push-pull like matter relationship, and it has to sort of resolve at the end. And these things are also [specific to] female relationships, and again, [having grown] up in a very female-centric family…this is the world I live in and that I never see in Hollywood movies. So I love that it’s groundbreaking right now but these are the stories we should be telling nonstop, anyway.” 

Similarly, Ngeyen states, “Namaari started out as much more your straight-forward villain…But we were constantly being challenged: How do we make it deeper? How do we make Raya and Namaari’s relationship speak to the bigger story we’re trying to tell? That’s why we gave them this complex history. And it speaks to the other side of a lot of complex female relationships: someone you [once] shared a love with, a history with. They’re both raised to be these leaders, and now view each other as enemies.”

Eventually, Raya’s mission to find the broken pieces of the Dragon Gem and defeat the Druun also becomes a journey of self-discovery. In order to save Kumandra and her father, she must learn to trust and forgive, work with her comrades, and let go of the anger, resentment, and hurt she held onto from the past and look forward. Sisu, who fails to understand Raya’s distrust in others, plays a fundamental role in this journey. Throughout the movie, she encourages Raya to forgive Namaari and to join forces with her former friend to defeat the Druun. Sisu’s kind heart and sincere faith in humanity is what makes the story so riveting and heartwarming. With her guidance, Raya not only mends her friendship with Namaari, but also finds the courage to trust others once again. 

“[Sisu is] tremendously amazing and heartwarmingly funny, but there is a hidden wisdom underlying all of it, that Raya and hopefully the audience ultimately comes to see,”  Lim says. “That humor comes from a place of seeing the best in people, the best in Raya, the best in the people that Raya thought were her enemies, in all these people who you think have let you down and betrayed you. The dragon is the one who can see that spark and that potential. And it inspires everybody to sort of come together and really get past it.” 

“Raya is the hero because she’s the one who gets up and says, ‘Even in this moment, when I have no reason to trust this other person, I’m going to show myself as trustworthy and I’m going to reach out. Because I hope you understand the only way we’re going to get through this world is together.’”

The use of symbolism in illustrating the message of unity was also an amazing touch to the story. In the movie, the kingdoms are connected by a large, dragon-shaped river that highlights the significance of water and dragons as features that are shared amongst the divided regions. This implies that in spite of the hostility between the kingdoms, they still have a bond that ties them all together.

“For us, the main unifying elements of Kumandra have always been the water and the dragon. In our movie, we have the river that links everybody together, and throughout the movie, we see them traveling along this river to visit each of the different lands. So there’s a water element that really ties it together physically…Then beyond that, there is a universal reverence for the dragon. There are motifs in the film that are dragon inspired but interpreted in each land’s particular way,” said production designer Helen Chen. 

By exploring themes such as trust, forgiveness, hope, empathy, teamwork, friendship, perseverance, and reconciliation, Raya and the Last Dragon conveys multiple powerful messages to its young audience — among which include the importance of acknowledging and owning up to past mistakes as well as learning to work with people that disagree with you. One of the film’s most prominent lessons was that in order to heal division, we must learn to trust, forgive, empathize, and unite in spite of our differences. This is a lesson that is especially significant and relevant amid the current state of our world, which, like Kumandra, is very much broken, divided, and torn apart by long-lasting anger, hatred, and misunderstanding. 

Paul Briggs, the co-director of Raya and the Last Dragon, viewed the division and hostility amongst the five kingdoms of Kumandra to be a reflection or parallel of the circumstances taking place in today’s society and world. “I started looking around at our own world and our own country. There was a lot of fracturing and division,” Briggs said. “I remember my two little boys asking questions about it. As a parent and as a father, it really affected me. And I started asking myself, ‘How can I give them hope for a better future?’ ‘How do I leave this world a better place than I entered it?’”

Raya and the Last Dragon is also groundbreaking in that it marks a monumental step forward in terms of Southeast Asian cultural representation in Hollywood. Not only is Raya Disney’s first ever Southeast Asian princess, but Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya in the animated film, makes history as the first Southeast Asian actor to lead a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie. In addition to Tran, other notable Southeast Asian cast and crew members include voice actors Thalia Tran and Izaac Wang; screenwriters Nguyen and Lim; as well as the Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn, who led the team of artists that brought the story to life. 

Southeast Asian culture and geography played a fundamental role in the creation of the movie’s central location, serving as the source of inspiration behind the fictional land of Kumandra. What I personally admire the most about the approach that the production crew took in sculpting Kumandra was that they integrated and blended features from multiple Southeast Asian cultures  and countries rather than basing the setting off of only one. “For the visual development, there was a lot of talk about finding certain things that wove through a lot of the countries in Southeast Asia,” Lim said. “It’s exciting when there’s a shared trait.”

She explained, “Rather than the simpler task of having one Southeast Asian country being reflected in one Kumandran land…to Disney’s credit, they really, really went deeper to find the underlying inspirations and core and threads that ran through so many of the communities.” 

Indeed, Disney invested a great deal of time and effort to conduct research for Raya and the Last Dragon. Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, members of the production team, including co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, traveled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore, hoping to gain deeper understanding of their unique cultures and gather material that would go into the creation of Kumandra. In addition, the studio formed the Southeast Asia Story Trust — a team of Southeast Asian historians, anthropologists, and cultural experts who worked as consultants to ensure that the film’s portrayal of Southeast Asian cultures was as authentic and respectful as possible. Led by Laos visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, members of the story trust specialized in knowledge of various fields including music, choreography, architecture, martial arts, visual anthropology, linguistics, botany, and more. 

“We committed ourselves and all of our collaborators to do deep, deep research, community engagement, and constant collaboration with our cultural departments,” said Estrada.

However, Kumandra was not the only aspect of the movie that drew inspiration from Southeast Asian culture. Sisu’s character, for instance, is based on the naga, which, according to Southeast Asian folklore and religion, are serpent-like water deities. The movie’s fight scenes were also built upon Southeast Asian influences, consisting of traditional weapons and martial arts styles and techniques such as Pencak Silat, Muay Thai, Arnis, and Võ thuật. In fact, Raya’s go-to weapon is a kris — an asymmetrical dagger originating from Indonesia. 

Many members of the cast and crew channeled their own cultural experiences as inspiration for the film. “It was fun to have Fawn, myself, Adele, members in our animation, story teams, to arm wrestle a little bit about what things we can celebrate in our cultures. And it would be small details, like what food would be on the banquet,” Nguyen said. “We were all pitching different dishes and when you could get one little dish in there that was super recognizable, it meant so much.” The movie’s inclusion of these food scenes as well as other small details including how the characters always take off their shoes before entering someone’s home and how Raya refers to her father in Vietnamese, calling him “Ba,” enhance the authenticity of the film’s depiction of Southeast Asian cultures, allowing Southeast Asian viewers to better relate to and identify with the movie.  

Furthermore, having grown up in Malaysia, Lim illustrated Raya’s resilient and courageous personality to be based off of the Southeast Asian women she grew up admiring. “There’s a history of strong female leaders and warriors in many countries in Southeast Asia, and I myself grew up in a family of very empowered women who inspired me and also scared me a little bit,” she explained. “So it was important that Raya’s actions and her attitude really embody that same spirit. You know, one of leadership and fearlessness, of love of family, [and] responsibility for others.” 

Similarly, Thalia Tran noted that the tenacity, strength, and fierceness of Southeast Asian women shines through in Little Noi’s character as well. “”For her to be so young and to have her family turned to stone by the Druun, and her to kind of have to raise herself with the Ongis and that sense of strength that she has to develop, I think that’s something that’s also very common in Southeast Asian families. Especially because it’s something that is very valued, that sense of independence.”

However, perhaps the most prominent and fundamental cultural element of Raya and the Last Dragon is its emphasis on the importance of community, family, unity, and inclusion — values that are at the heart of Southeast Asian culture. 

“[T]he wonderful thing is what we all found, first of all, in all Southeast Asian countries and cultures there’s such a strong spirit of community,” Lim said in a press conference for Raya and the Last Dragon. “If you look at even one country, like the country I grew up in, Malaysia, there are so many races, cultures, religions. So many ways for us to view each other as the enemy or view each other as the other. But when you truly look at what makes our culture amazing and sings, whether it’s our arts or our food, the best street food in the world, it is because of all these different elements really coming together and creating something transcendent.”

Producer Osnat Shurer also said, “[Y]ou spent a little time in the region or with some Southeast Asian friends and you know the importance of community, and love, and warmth, and how we come together around food and things like that that became thematic, we really fell in love with, and wanted to express the power of unity. And another thing you find in Southeast Asia is with this multiplicity, there’s still this great inclusion. Like people are different, and have different ideas and different fabrics, and different cultures, and different languages, and yet there’s this inclusion, this ability to kind of work together for the greater good, which is something [we] really wanted seated in the film.”

The theme of family and community resonated a lot with Thalia Tran as well, who, having grown up in a Southeast Asian household, explains that she empathizes and identifies with the film’s portrayal of these values. “[T]hat sense of comradery and that strength within, that group of people and that sense of family is definitely something that I related to personally. And I know growing up in a Vietnamese family that family always, always comes first, from the traditions to just everyday life.”

Moreover, the representation that Raya and the Last Dragon brings to the Southeast Asian community is especially relevant now amid the recent and alarming spike in anti-Asian hate crimes across the nation. 

Kelly Marie Tran says that she hopes the film can bring people joy and give the Asian community something to celebrate during these dark times. “What’s so cool with Raya is that [it’s being released] in the midst of this brokenness, and amid this horrible, emotional tumultuous time for people like us and people of Asian descent,” the actress said. “I’m proud of being part of a moment and a movie that is celebrating where we come from.”

“If there’s anything I’ve learned from this whole experience, and my own personal experiences with racism, it’s that community is the one way to help combat any sort of negativity,” she added. “I’m really inspired by the ways people are really banding together to combat this thing.”

All in all, if you’re debating on whether or not Raya and the Last Dragon is worth watching, I am here to tell you that it is. Not only does the film have breathtaking imagery and brilliant animation, but it conveys an inspiring message of trust and hope that the world, especially in its current broken state, needs to hear.

To watch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+ (subscription required), click HERE.

“What’s so cool with Raya is that [it’s being released] in the midst of this brokenness, and amid this horrible, emotional tumultuous time for people like us and people of Asian descent. I’m proud of being part of a moment and a movie that is celebrating where we come from,” said actress Kelly Marie Tran. 

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