In Disney’s long history of iconic heroes, only a handful of princesses (and female characters in general) have exhibited agency and even fewer who had a movie dedicated to themselves. Thankfully, in the last 10 years, Disney has been slowly changing the game with strong female characters leading their own films. What’s even better is that representation of marginalized communities has been following suit. With films like Moana, women and girls could finally see themselves represented.
Following in its footsteps is Raya and the Last Dragon—a stunning coming-of-age story about a princess saving her people. Set in the fictional country of Kumandra, Raya and the Last Dragon begins during Raya’s (Kelly Marie Tran) childhood. Her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), wants to invite the other kingdoms to end a 500-year-old feud. But after a hurtful betrayal, the highly coveted dragon jewel is broken into pieces, awakening a 500-year-old plague called The Druun. Young Raya must find the mythical dragon, Sisu (Awkafina), to put the pearl back together and save her country once and for all.
Disney always seems to outdo itself when it comes to animation. Combined with its more recent animated features like Frozen 2, Raya is on a completely different field. Its southeast Asian setting is full of lush greenery and crystal clear waters that you want to swim in. The different kingdoms are heavily influenced by Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia. They are meticulously detailed with cultural staples ranging from the food to the architecture. While not a perfect representation (critics have complained about the meshing of different cultures), it is still quite refreshing to see locations that aren’t generic European for once.
Disney has created a plot formula and perfected it, so despite it being used in all of their films, it continues to feel refreshing. Raya’s storyline is beat-for-beat, a traditional Disney story, but its nuances are what make it stand out. Raya herself is a complicated character whose inability to trust people puts her peers in peril. But because of what she goes through at the beginning of the film, it’s easy to empathize with her. Seeing this mindset collide with Sisu’s “everybody is inherently good” mantra makes Raya’s character arc even more powerful.
Raya’s relationship with the villain, Namaari (Gemma Chan), is even more interesting. Namaari’s motivation for getting the jewel pieces isn’t fueled by greed; it’s fueled by her devotion to her people. Raya and Namaari are constantly at odds with one another, not knowing they want the same thing. Also, if I’m being quite honest, there was quite a bit of sexual tension between them, which felt a little like queerbaiting, but who’s bitter here?!
Raya and the Last Dragon certainly won’t be the last coming-of-age story, but hopefully it will help pave the way for new stories to be told. Judging from how excited folks were to see a Southeast Asian princess on the big screen, it’s clear that representation has been long overdue, and it’s exciting to see some change on the horizon.