“Raya and The Last Dragon” is a didactic fantasy animation film promoting the idea of trust and faith in humanity in an era where it’s needed most. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, the Disney film premiered March 5 on its self-titled streaming platform, featuring the company’s first Southeast Asian princess — a culture previously unrepresented by the conglomerate.
“Raya and The Last Dragon” is a timely film that encourages global internal reflection on what it means to unite for the greater good. In the last year, the world has been not only plagued by COVID-19, but a heightened anti-Asian sentiment.
Raya, played by Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “The Croods: A New Age”) is a young warrior-princess tasked with restoring an ever-worsening dystopia to its former glory. The once prosperous united lands, known as Kumandra, were previously ruled by dragons who brought water, rain and peace. Soon, humans’ hatred created “the Druun,” which brought the dragons to near extinction. Now Raya must find and save Sisu (Awkwafina) — the sole remnant of the dragon species, before humankind is eternally destroyed.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” has consistent cultural representation throughout the film. The movie includes Southeast Asian martial arts, terminology, food and clothing. It also features a predominantly Asian cast.
In her Drew Barrymore Show interview, Tran cited Ming-Na Wen, the voice of Mulan, as her inspiration.
“I think I was nine when that movie came out,” Tran said of Disney’s first Asian princess film. “It was the first time I felt like I saw someone who looked like me living in these sort of spaces on that sort of scale.”
Although not yet announced as an official Disney princess, Raya doesn’t have a male love interest like many of her predecessors — rather, her sole ambition is to save her kingdom. The main hindrance throughout her journey is the antagonist, Namaari, a princess of another kingdom. The push and pull of these two characters represent the consequences of women settling in division instead of uniting for the greater good.
The strong themes of trust and unity in this film couldn’t have come at a better time. Asian Americans have been facing greater levels of racism since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, to which some accredit to former President Donald Trump who called it the “kung-flu” or “Chinese virus.”
Hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment jumped 2,600 percent in New York City from 2019 to 2020, according to city records. The spike in attacks has led to the creation of the New York Police Department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force, which has been under criticism by community members recently for its crime response.
In response to the widespread issue, President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January denouncing discrimination against Asian Americans. It also included a resolution authored by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), the first vice chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
There were 2,583 reports of anti-Asian incidents in 47 U.S. states from March to May 2020, according to Asian American Pacific Islander’s (AAPI) “Hate Report.” More than 70 percent of the incidents involved verbal harassment, while 22 percent of instances included shunning or deliberate avoidance because of race and nine percent included were physical.
Chicago has had some attempts of its own to support the Asian community. Last February, there was a Chinatown restaurant crawl to aid the businesses that experienced a drop in sales amid the coronavirus paranoia.
Wen, a surprise guest on the episode featuring Tran’s interview, said it boggles her mind that these occurrences still happen. She hopes Raya “crosses all barriers” as Mulan has done.
“It’s about finding the hero and the heroine in all of us,” Wen said of “Raya and The Last Dragon.” “It’s about believing in yourself. And it’s also about having compassion and sharing the love to fight for humanity and fight for what’s right. So all those messages are really, really important. And I think Raya is going to provide that for the new generation.”
The spotlight on the Asian culture coupled with the movie’s important messages are what give this movie character and separate it from other titles in the Disney princess franchise. However, the action, storyline and visual elements are what make this film entertaining and will keep viewers interested from start to finish.
While this film alone is unlikely to bridge the gap between love and hate in everyday society, it poses a possible catalyst for progressive conversation.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is in theaters now and available for viewing with a Disney+ premium subscription. It will premiere for free on the platform June 4.