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Raya and the Last Dragon: One Step Forward

Article by: Crismhil S. Anselmo

Graphics by: Andrea Nicole R. Villasanta

Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s latest leap towards Asian representation in Hollywood. Premiered last March 5 on Disney Plus, the animated film follows Raya, the first Southeast Asian Disney princess, in her quest to collect the fragments of Dragon Gem to restore peace and the fantasy land of Kumandra.

Along the journey through the five tribes, the heroine meets a bunch of misfits and Sisu, the last dragon. Meanwhile, encounters with Raya’s friend-turned-archenemy, Namaari, complicate the team’s adventure of trust and betrayal.

The pacing made it hard to sympathize with Raya and her internal struggles as the sole hope of the land of Heart were poorly illustrated. Additionally, challenges were conveniently conquered, characters’ feelings were quickly swayed, and even the final conflict was resolved through the power of friendship. With plenty of easily-resolved conflicts cramped into 1 hour and 57 minutes of screenplay, forming a connection with the characters is a challenge.

On the other hand, it goes without saying that Disney is continuously pushing the boundaries of animation as displayed in Raya and the Last Dragon. The attention to detail is surreal and is evident from the movements of the characters, the textures of their garments, and the lighting of the sets. The dynamic color palette of the film accentuates its almost realistic visuals and yet remains true to its fantasy setting.

Like in Disney’s Frozen and Moana, the movie features a female protagonist with no love interest. It continues one of the recent Disney movie narratives that princesses do not need princes for them to succeed in their endeavors—a powerful lesson to teach young girls who still believe that their knight in shining armor will come and take them to happy ever after. In addition, the animated film was not a musical. Though it was refreshing to see a Disney movie where the characters do not break into a song every now and then, it would have been empowering to see Raya have a staple song similar to Elsa’s “Let It Go” and Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go.”

Still, Raya was presented as a heroine that children can look up to; one portrayed not as a damsel in distress, but as a fearless female warrior and a person of color who achieves her goals because of her own hard work.

Meanwhile, critics stomped the movie with negative reviews due to the lack of actual Southeast Asian members in the cast. Only Raya, voiced by Kellie Marie Tan, was performed by an actor of the character’s ethnicity, while the rest of the speaking roles were given to East Asian actors such as Awkwafina and Gemma Chan who voiced Sisu and Namaari, respectively. There were also various reactions on the mixture of SEA cultures in the film, saying that it was a bit too “blended”– as if the producers picked tiny bits of culture from SEA countries and mindlessly poured it all into the movie.

Inaccurately illustrating a culture is still poor representation.

Though proper SEA portrayal in Western media still needs work, Raya and the Last Dragon is the big step forward to establish SEA presence and identity in a culturally dynamic world.

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