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What is, at first, most striking about “Raya and the Last Dragon” are the comparisons it evokes.
Its opening scene, as Raya zooms through the desert on her spherical companion Tuk Tuk, evokes Rey and BB-8 in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The world — with its five tribes, each with a distinct fighting style and color scheme — feels very “Avatar”-esque. Even the story, of a young, courageous warrior princess who journeys across the known realm to restore a magical stone that will vanquish the dark, evil blight that plagues humanity, sounds a heck of a lot like “Moana.”
Similarities are unavoidable — hero’s journey and all that — and just because a film is reminiscent of others doesn’t automatically make it hackneyed and stale. Still, “Raya and the Last Dragon” doesn’t wow in the same way other Disney powerhouses do. It doesn’t have the subversiveness of “Frozen,” nor the pointed social commentary of “Zootopia” or the immersive imaginativity of “Wreck-It Ralph.” This isn’t to say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” is bad; it’s an uplifting, action-packed, beautifully animated film with a lot of heart, and a worthy addition to the Disney canon. But being a part of that canon inevitably comes with limitations.
In the film, Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya, an inspiring sign that, despite the racist harassment Tran faced following the release of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in summer 2018, Tran remains unfazed. When a young Raya is betrayed by her friend Namaari (Gemma Chan), the evil Druun are released upon the world, turning most of humanity, including Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), into stone statues. Six years later, Raya seeks the help of a magical dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) — along with a motley crew of friends, including Boun (Izaac Wang), a 10-year-old shrimp chef; Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a toddler con artist; and Tong (Benedict Wong), the hulking sole survivor of the Spine tribe — to vanquish the Druun and save the world.
The film features an almost all-Asian cast — the first of the studio’s films to do so. This is, indeed, progress, but in a post-”Crazy Rich Asians” world, one must ask: Is it enough? Despite being set in the fictional Southeast Asia-inspired world of Kumandra, most of the voice actors are not Southeast Asian, nor are Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, the film’s directors. And while Disney did create a “Southeast Asia Story Trust” composed of outside specialists to advise the creative team, it feels, in many ways, like a half-baked effort — one that (as the casting decisions make abundantly clear) is complicit in Southeast Asian erasure, that prioritizes looking like a Southeast Asian story instead of actually being one.
The film is, inarguably, action-adventure. Its chase scenes, fight sequences, and huge action set pieces leave no room for side plots or catchy musical numbers; it opts, instead, for an epic, soaring instrumental score from James Newton Howard (“The Hunger Games,” “The Dark Night”). The fight choreography is especially gripping; Qui Nguyen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians"), served as one of five martial arts consultants on the film — and it shows. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Pencak silat or Muay Thai, but the fighting feels different: distinctive and detailed to a level that few animation studios have managed to achieve.
That being said, the film is hardly devoid of charm and whimsy. “Have you ever done a group project, and there’s that one kid who didn’t pitch in as much but still ended up with the same grade?” Sisu asks, with a modern patois that feels out of place for a 500 year-old dragon. Indeed, Awkwafina is the film’s comedic heart, with Nguyen and Lim’s script providing her with plenty of opportunities to flex her signature goofball energy.
Not even the pandemic, it seems, could compromise the studio’s unmatched visual standards. Despite being made from over 400 individual homes, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is as beautiful as ever. It’s no easy task to capture the idiosyncrasies of the myriad landscapes that constitute Southeast Asia, but the film does a pretty bang-up job. From rolling grasslands to marshy canals, from ornate temples to bustling, kaleidoscopic night markets, the film is a masterpiece of sound design, lighting, and especially production design: managing to balance several distinct visual landscapes without ever feeling overwhelming or confusing.
But the true beauty of “Raya” is, I think, less visual and more thematic. The film doesn’t glorify its protagonist; it doesn’t push the typical “only our protagonist can save the world” message that seems to be the default of action-adventure blockbusters. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is, in fact, a direct refutation of that. It’s a film about trust, about believing in and forgiving people, even when it’s difficult to do so — a message that, at a time when young people are less trusting than ever, is a particularly powerful one for Disney to affirm.
The most powerful message of this film, however, is one that it never actually makes.
Raya’s relationship with Naamari has all the trappings of a romantic subplot, the same adversary-to-ally-to-romantic partner progression that’s followed in “Beauty and the Beast” or “Tangled” — only notably without the climactic kiss scene. It’s reminiscent, in some ways, of watching Elsa’s journey from “not explicitly straight” in “Frozen” to “possibly gay?” with Honeymaren in “Frozen 2,” eliciting the same bated breath, anticipation, and ultimate disappointment.
One could argue that “Raya and the Last Dragon” has moved past needing a teenage romantic interest, that it eschews the typical Disney romance in favor of a deeper, more character-centric plot. And this is a perfectly fine argument; indeed, it’s one that “Moana” makes quite well. But the parallelism, the character arcs, the hand holding and tense, lingering glances between Raya and Naamari — they make it hard to see this as anything other than queerbaiting.
That said, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is still a good film — a great film, even. It does a lot, not just to exemplify the beauty and power of animation, but also to further Asian American representation in an often white, male industry.
I just wish it did a little bit more.
"Raya and the Last Dragon" releases in select theaters and is available on Disney+ with Premier Access on Mar. 5.
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