Raya and the Last Dragon: a Story for a Divided Nation

(Warning: May Contain Spoilers)


By Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Fair use, Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

With a stellar cast featuring Daniel Dae Kim, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan and Kelly Marie Tran applying their respective backgrounds highlighting the strength and diversity of Asain culture, Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine adventure presents important themes of trust and unity that are applicable in the modern context

The film begins with an opening scene that shows the destruction of a previously united land of Kumandra and how a betrayal ultimately leads to chaos and separation. Raya, innocent yet eager, mistakenly trusts a “friend,” leading to each region taking a piece of a heavily-guarded gem and reawakening the Druuns, a mindless plague bent on turning Kumandra to stone. Unlike other Disney movies, Raya is not a traditional “princess;” instead she embodies a message about strength and trust that can be applied in our own lives.  

Upon the breaking of the gem, Raya seeks to recover its pieces in order to redeem and revive her “Baba” (father), which leads to her meeting Sisu, the last dragon. Alongside a cast of characters from different regions, they embark on a journey to collect and unify the broken gem to defeat the Druuns and reunify Kumandra. Over time, the entourage finds common ground to trust one another and come together to form a family. The movie expertly ties in its commentary on divisiveness within a nation and the necessity of unity within a plotline that remains a lighthearted adventure. The film also presents complex characters with realistic conflictions that allow the audience to sympathize with both sides of the eventual conflict. 

The movie portrays Raya and Namari as childhood friends that grow up to hate each other. They bonded over their love of dragons, with Sisu being the key to reunifying them to set aside their differences. As children, we all have a natural innocence and do not hold innate prejudices against each other, though as we get older, we are trained by those around us to dislike what we deem different from ourselves. However, this behavior is trained, and can thus be unlearned, just as Raya and Namari learn to trust one another and work together towards the end of the movie. 

This unification creates an overarching theme that is present throughout the film and is applicable to real-world socio-political matters: the importance of trust. When the pandemic started in early 2020, xenophobia and anti-Asain hate crimes rose exponentially, eventually reaching mass media awareness with the Atlanta Spa Shooting. While painful and heartbreaking, this sadly did not come as a surprise, as many of us had been seeing the rise in hate speech and knew it could potentially escalate to such levels. Certain individuals have been quick to turn on their neighbors and spew hate speech, often coupled with violence, with no regard for humanity, instead only seeing life through race-colored lenses. Just like Raya and Namari, this hatred is learned, and can similarly be unlearned through mutual trust and respect. 

Alongside trust, the movie presents a recurring theme of grief and the feelings that come with losing someone you love. Raya and many characters in her entourage have all lost someone to the Druuns. Although they continue to grieve, they turn their feelings of sorrow into motivation and inspiration. As we reflect back on the start of the pandemic, we’ve all lost something, whether that’s loved ones, opportunities or memories. We have been quick to blame these misfortunes on the pandemic, but as we move forward, we must instead begin to recognize the systemic issues that have exacerbated the destructiveness of the past year, and that will continue to spawn violence and hate if not properly addressed. 

The ambiguity of Raya’s ethnicity allows the movie to represent all people of Southeast Asian descent while presenting empowered women with strong female leads like Tran and Awkwafina. The tear-jerking yet comedic relief pays tribute to oppressed Asian heritages who are often underestimated and underrepresented. The movie relies heavily on its multi-ethnic cast with direct experience of racial oppression, who breathe life into their characters in unexpected ways. Through this representation, the movie is able to encapsulate the genuine diversity and strength of Asian culture, giving us a level of recognition and representation often lacking in Hollywood. 

Living in Irvine, a predominantly Asian community, I have personally become detached from the microaggressions and undermining racist comments directed towards my ethnicity, as I have grown up with such comments and simply accepted them as reality. I have been hesitant in the past to defend myself and others when being called “white-washed” or when individuals undermined my achievements and made fun of facial features. Raya and the Last Dragon is part of a growing media awareness regarding misconceptions and racial prejudices against AAPI (and POC), and the attempt to uplift our strengths and resilience is long overdue. 

As the characters set aside their differences at the end of the movie, they emphasize the importance of trusting others and finding common ground despite personal prejudices. Raya, a Disney princess in her own right, is the ideal role model who exhibits strength and courage, someone who is willing to fight for change, presenting a much-needed message that we can be our own heroes. The film depicts a heroic story with an underlying message for the oppressed, serving as a reminder to treat those around you with respect and find beauty in diversity, by mirroring the multi-ethnic makeup of Asia and the strength we find in solidarity.