Disney Princesses kept being the animation studio’s crowning trademark from the very beginning. It all started with 1937’s Snow White, a generous young lady who greatly reflected traditional female roles in the household of the era. But now Disney’s latest movie, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, totally hits different. If you are ready for a brand new hero, a brand new world, and a brand new adventure to love then you are in luck because Raya and the Last Dragon have all that.
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ takes us on an enthralling, epic journey to the fantasy world named Kumandra which is inspired by the rich culture and environments of Southeast Asia. The five very different lands of Kumandra form the shape of a dragon and also named as: the Heart, the Fang, the Spine, the Talon, and the Tail. It’s a world where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. However, with the arrival of the Druuns (who turned folks to stone), chaos and separation had ensued. Luckily, a race of dragons was able to sacrifice themselves and manifest a sacred gem to keep the Druuns trapped.
At the start of the film, viewers are introduced to the movie’s main character Raya and her father as caretakers of this sacred gem kept safe in their land at the Heart.Raya's father invites them to his land in an attempt to make peaceand at first the leaders from the other areas of Kumandra—Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang—show hostility towards Raya and her father's kingdom. Chaos ensues as Namaari, the princess from Fang, tricks Raya and nearly manages to steal the gem. Instead, in the heat of the moment, the gem breaks in the fight, and each kingdom manages to grab a piece to keep themselves safe.
Now, 500 years later, with the gem’s powers weakening, the Druuns have returned and it’s up to a warrior. Raya's father turned to a stone for the Druuns. Now our namesake heroine goes in search of Sisu, the last dragon, in order to vanquish the Druuns and bring her father back to life again. But, she’s not doing it alone. In her journey there’s her best friend TukTuk and a bunch of brave and hilarious misfits and a thieving toddler. However, slowly along her journey, Raya learns that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well which is the main theme of the movie.
Everything in the movie seems perfectly balanced because screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim don’t get lost in their new animated playground, and never forget the story's emotional stakes. Raya isn’t just trying to bring her father back to life, she’s trying to reunite the world. It’s a smart film about one of the big themes of our current age - the nature of trust and the importance of unity. The social and political readings of the movie will be plentiful because it’s about trying to find common ground and cause again after betrayals and division.
One can enjoy ‘Raya’ purely on an adventure movie level, but it will also likely start a few interesting conversations with children about trust, forgiveness, and courage. Is fear a result of distrust or the cause of it? Are we divided because we're enemies or because we're told we're enemies?
In Raya’s fantasy world Kumandra is inspired by the rich culture and environments of Southeast Asia, aside from bearing the weight of humanity on her shoulders - she's got another burden to bear. Southeast Asia is a region that is home to 11 countries and 673 million people. There are hundreds of different cultures in this region, which begs the question - did Disney's first Southeast Asian heroin really embody it? The answer is YES. Kumandra’s five tribes each have their own distinct culture, inspired by different places in South East Asia.
The film doesn't take place in today's timeline, but rather imagines what the region might have looked like thousands of years ago. It's clear that bits of South East Asia are peppered through the film. Raya wears a hat that looks like the Salakot - a traditional headgear in the Philippines. Her loyal sidekick and also her form of transportation is named TukTuk - a cheeky reference to a rickshaw that is a popular mode of transportation there. And her fighting technique is inspired by Silat - a traditional martial arts form practiced commonly in Malaysia and Indonesia. As a result the movie really did represent Southeast Asia.
Not only the movie is great but also it has a groundbreaking moment in it that you might not even know was there. In ‘Raya and The Last Dragon,’ Patti Harrison becomes the first known transgender actor to lend voice to a character in a Disney animated movie with other top-notch voice actors. Harrison plays the Chieftess of Tail at the beginning of the film. While she’s only there for one scene and has just a couple of lines, it’s still an important milestone for transgender actors to get more roles.
Traditionally, transgender actors have only gotten roles as transgender characters, which also meant they didn’t appear much in media made for family or younger audiences. While there’s been a lot of progress in TV shows and movies casting transgender actors in transgender roles, there are still very few of those trans roles. As long as transgender actors can only get transgender roles, their job opportunities will be limited. The praise here lies with Harrison for breaking that barrier.
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ could have been a traditional princess story—another tale of a young woman chosen by legacy or magic to save her people. It’s not that movie. It’s a story about fallibility and the uncertainty that often accompanies courage—wrapped up in an unforgettable narrative that pays homage to mythology that has come before while creating its own past, present, and future.
So, squad up! Go on an epic adventure with the new characters from Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. And remember the best quote from the movie – “If we don’t stop and learn to trust one another, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart. We have a choice. We can tear each other apart or we can come together and build a better world. It’s not too late. If you want to get someone’s trust you have to give a little trust first.”
* Rumaiysa M Rahman is a 10th grader at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College, Dhaka