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“Raya and the Last Dragon” inspires young girls

Disney’s new animated movie was released on Friday, March 5, and is available on Disney Plus.

“Raya and The Last Dragon” is filled with bright, colorful imagery and laced with witty humor in typical Disney fashion, but it also succeeds in a different aspect: it marks another step from portraying princesses as damsels in distress to powerful heroines. 

The movie, which depicts a fantasy realm torn apart by power, fear and division, is inspired by Southeast Asia and deploys cultural details that make the story truly come alive.

As Raya and her sidekicks move through the divided regions of Kumandra while battling enemies, she also battles with her extreme lack of trust and suspicion toward whoever she encounters. This is highly contrasted with Sisu’s blind optimism, but this aspect of Raya’s personality provides her character with more layers than arguably many of the other Disney princesses in recent movies such as “Frozen.” The movie portrays the main character as a flawed hero, yet Raya’s deep-rooted struggle with mistrust and anger adds much more depth to her perspective. I enjoyed how a majority of the scenes focus on how Raya handles situations of threat and danger to accentuate her character as a warrior first before a princess. More importantly, her character development explores one’s struggles with overcoming a grief-stricken attitude intertwined with the intense fear of betrayal. But what makes this movie especially unique is that Raya’s hesitancy to be vulnerable is parallelled with other characters like Namaari, who is also struggling with trust.

This personal struggle combined with unexpected friendships formed with Sisu and other characters allow the movie’s message of forgiveness and trust to be exemplified further. Awkwafina’s performance of Sisu as a goofy, overly trusting friend is perfectly balanced with Raya’s serious attitude and ambitious personality. Beyond this, Chan’s portrayal of Namaari allows for the typical antagonist to have a complicated motive rather than a clear-cut one. Namaari’s complicated dynamic with Raya also adds to the complexity of the movie as viewers will understand both perspectives and perhaps relate to them. 

“Raya and The Last Dragon” tells of how humans and dragons once lived amongst each other and protected one another from harm. However, after the Druun, described by Raya as a “mindless plague,” threatened the land by turning humans into stone, the dragons united to save all of humanity by creating a powerful orb. Despite their success, Kumandra becomes split into five different regions, each hostile toward the other and each desiring to have possession of the orb. Years later, young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess in the land of Heart, finds herself betrayed by a seemingly new friend, Namaari (Gemma Chan), who is the princess of an opposing land. In this incident, the stone is split and the Druun reappear, wreaking havoc and chaos among the land. Fueled by anger from Namaari’s treachery, Raya sets forth to find the last remaining dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), to help find the split pieces of the stone and defeat the Druun.

What the movie lacks from its standard — almost predictable — fantasy tale plot (comprising a betrayal, a journey and a hero), it makes up for through the complex layers of its three main characters and meticulous details of Southeast Asia. However, it’s notable that the movie touches on different regions of people forming unity from discord amid a deathly “mindless plague,” which viewers could find relatable to the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19). Similar to other recent Disney movies such as “Zootopia”, which discusses bias, it’s commendable how “Raya and The Last Dragon” touches on relevant topics as well.

Though the movie is aimed toward a younger audience, its powerful, relatable message and thrilling thematic elements make it a spectacular addition to Disney’s princess movies. Along with the Southeast Asia-inspired realms of a snow filled forest, floating markets and rough deserts, it features characters that soar beyond expectations and relay essential lessons of trust, forgiveness and healing. These aspects not only make Raya a princess who doesn’t need saving, but they also make “Raya and The Last Dragon” an emotional, moving tale.

By Sarah Lew, Staff writer
Photo courtesy of Disney