By Andrea Thompson
So even Disney is making films about inequality, and even class privilege. Is there a catch to this?
Well, if anyone has exploited and/or dominated how we think, it’s Disney. Even if they do basically own us all at this point, at least it’s giving us some good food for thought in its latest offering “Raya and the Last Dragon.” For a film that’s all about magical gems, evil spirits, and dragons, it’s far more than escapism. Even if it addresses the cliche of a lone rider in a broken, barren land, it’s less about acknowledging said cliches to more better make use of them than addressing what spawns them in the first place. If the world you’re living in is broken, how exactly do you make it whole again? Is it even possible? And how did it break in the first place?
Too relevant in a time when unity seems out of reach and we all feel unable to connect the way we all so desperately wish to. But if Disney is determined to persuade us to trust in spite of, and occasionally, in the face of all logic, it infuses “Raya and the Last Dragon” with the yearning and collective pain of a film constructed almost in spite of itself, from more than 400 individual homes.
It’s little surprise then that the world of “Raya and the Last Dragon” is similarly fractured, with the ancient civilizations of Kumandra, a gloriously animated fusion of various Southeast Asian cultures, firmly divided since dragons vanished 500 years ago. Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) attempted to make peace and reunite the land, only to be betrayed and fall victim to the Drunn, a malevolent shadowy force which turns humans into stone. His last words to his daughter, the preteen princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) were words of hope, but six years later the understandably jaded young adult she’s become has a difficult time heeding them. Mostly traveling alone except for her adorable animal companion, the giant pill bug Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), she’s been searching for the last dragon not so much out of hope for the future, but in a last desperate attempt to bring Benja back.
When Raya does find the last dragon Sisu, who’s played with the kind of lovably weird, charismatic energy that only Awkwafina can bring, they still have a long journey ahead, seeing as how they still need to find the various pieces of a broken magical gem to heal the world. That world, beaten and battered as it is, is also vibrant and surprisingly resilient, much like Sisu herself. For someone who’s basically the last of her kind, Sisu is far from dour, or even cynical about humanity. She’s the one who makes the skeptical Raya tentatively reach for trust again, even if it’s from her enemy and fellow princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), who betrayed Raya as a child and is now pursuing her on her quest.
In the spirit of the new Disney tradition, Namaari isn’t an outright villain but a flawed, very recognizably human antagonist, and the movie doesn’t quite maintain this balance like it did in “Frozen.” Namaari has all the makings of either a great villain or a misunderstood one, but she’s simply not given enough time and exploration to truly come alive. She’s not just an opposing force, she could be the protagonist herself, and it’s hard to imagine her being so sympathetic before our current times, with even the most privileged among us, Disney included, forced to acknowledge a dark truth: it’s much easier to make good choices when you’re in good circumstances. The choices Namaari and the other leaders made were unquestionably wrong, but they were the lands of the have-nots, especially when compared to the bounteous wealth of Raya’s kingdom.
Such sorrowful yearning dominates, even obscuring the colorful, dangerous, and always stunningly beautiful world. Even if the various human companions Raya picks up on her journey represent a motley diverse crew who’ve found themselves alone in an increasingly destructive world, that world and its myths remain stubbornly obscured. And the movie’s ultimate leap of faith may be Disney’s biggest fairy tale yet, that a happy ending is not only healing and finding happiness after past trauma, but being lovingly reunited with the family members we lost on the way.