Raya takes off on Disney

Ashley Lee, A&E Editor

The new Disney film “Raya and the Last Dragon” is their recent, overly ambitious attempt at blending more characters and Southeast Asian cultures than a two hour film can possibly process. Yet despite these flaws, it presents a sincere story full of enchanting animations, captivating action scenes and profound messages.

The film begins with an intricate storyline about how the last dragon left a Dragon Gem to save the kingdom of Kumandra from Druun, a plague that is able to turn the entire world to stone. Though the gem was originally located in Heart (a region of the kingdom), disputes cause the gem to crack, and each tribe of Kumandra steals a piece of the gem out of greed and distrust.
Raya, the next Guardian of the Dragon Gem and daughter of the Chief of Heart, must piece together the cracked parts of the gem to save everyone who has already been turned to stone. So she embarks on her journey with her friend Tuk Tuk, the last dragon Sisu and others that join along the way.

Raya’s team supports her despite her claims of being able to accomplish her task alone, showcasing a group fighting for the same cause rather than an individual hero coming to save the day. However, with such a large cast, there is not enough character development nor enough established background to help explain each character’s motives and actions: Their only connection is all having lost their families to Druun.

While Raya’s character is somewhat difficult to understand, the film includes meaningful scenes that older audiences can relate to, such as the conflicts between Raya’s pragmatisn and Sisu’s optimistism.

Not only does the film carry a heartfelt message about having to take the first step towards someone else in order to establish trust, but in a way, the film parallels current global conflicts where countries are divided by factions who prioritize their needs and wants above those of others. Because the story is told from the perspective of Raya, other tribes are criticized as full of crime and clearly unable to save the world from harm. This mirrors current global affairs, where a flawed point of view often prevents people from moving towards a compromise.

Additionally, Disney made several efforts to represent Southeast Asians among the crewmembers of the film. For one, the main character, Raya, was voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, an American actress of Vietnamese descent. The screenplay was written by Adele Lim, who was born in Malaysia, and Qui Nguyen, who is of Vietnamese descent as well.

Nonetheless, there has been controversy surrounding Disney’s representation of the Southeast Asian cultures, as the backgrounds of all those countries were lumped under the label of “Southeast Asian” and East Asian actors were casted for important roles such as Sisu voiced by Awkwafina and Namaari voiced by Gemma Chan—who are Chinese American and British Chinese respectively. Others suggest that Raya’s cultural identity should have had a more integral role in guiding her on her quest like “Moana.”

Although Disney has been criticized for its cultural inaccuracies and lack of representation, with recent films such as “Coco,” “Moana” and now “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the company is moving in the right direction in creating films with relevant messages for its audience while representing diverse cultures.