Review: Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess breathes fire into feminism in “Raya and the Last Dragon”

The courageous warrior, Raya, tackles substantial challenges of trusting others, and viewers should trust that the movie is worth the ticket price.

By Elise Mulligan

In the latest addition to Disney’s stockpile of princess films, viewers are introduced to a force of unwavering strength known as the warrior Raya. But surely after the huge success of “Frozen” and “Moana,” these princess-on-a-journey films will start to get old, right?

Apparently not.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” builds an alluring fictional world for a protagonist who is an empowering role model for young audiences and serves as a step forward in Southeast Asian representation. The story tackles complex discussions about trust to engage older viewers, while maintaining the entrancing charm of the quintessential princess tale. And like any good Disney movie, it brought me to the verge of tears as a 20-year-old in a theater full of children.

The film was released in theaters and on Disney+ with premier access (a hefty extra $30) on March 5. In the U.S. opening weekend, it raked in $8.5 million at the box office.

The story opens with Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior in the land of Kumandra who is searching for the last remaining dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). Long ago, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity from the sinister force called the Druun, culminating their power into a single magical stone. The five tribes of Kumandra betrayed one another and broke the stone, each taking a piece for themselves. Now, with Sisu’s help, Raya must unite the tribes to restore peace and stop the Druun from turning everyone to stone.

Raya has garnered attention as the first Southeast Asian Disney princess and is voiced by Tran, who is also of Southeast Asian descent. Although Kumandra is a fictional world, the film’s creators have said that they took inspiration from different Southeast Asian cultures.

While it’s received a fair amount of praise for more diverse representation, some viewers have criticized the movie for melding the cultures of different countries into a monolithic melting pot defined as “Southeast Asian.” Additionally, a majority of the top-billed voice actors are East Asian, prompting some to call out Disney for failing to hire Southeast Asian actors to fill these roles.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” features the classic battle of good versus evil, yet dives even deeper into themes of trusting other people. Raya is backstabbed by people she chose to trust, so she is understandably hesitant to trust anyone else. Yet Sisu urges her to “take the first step” and put her faith in her enemies in order to bring peace to the world.

It’s simple enough for children to follow along, while simultaneously engaging older audiences to consider how these messages connect to their own lives. There’s no clear right answer for what the characters should do, and the creators play with this complexity for more authentic interactions between the characters.

In terms of female empowerment, the movie hits the feminist bullseye. The women of Kumandra are courageous leaders with physical and mental strength who fight alongside the male characters on an even playing field. Their gender isn’t a foreseeable issue or even a noticeable factor for their place in the hierarchy.

With another warrior-princess film like the 1998 “Mulan,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” gives young girls the green light to be empowered without compromising their femininity. Mulan is no doubt a strong role model, but she is powerful because she’s a girl who can fight, whereas Raya is powerful because she is a warrior who just happens to be a girl. Mulan must dress like a man to prove herself, but the women of Kumandra wear elegant dresses and jewelry while maintaining authority, a prime example of women in power who don’t have to invalidate their femininity.

On their journey, Raya and Sisu are accompanied by the archetypal band of misfits common in most Disney features. They are comedic, loveable and vastly different from one another, hearkening to the typical formula for Disney adventure movies — but it’s effective just the same. The familiar framework of the story is comforting, not stale.

As always, Disney produces gorgeous animations and breath-taking scenery, and “Raya and the Last Dragon” is no exception. The visual style and movements are reminiscent of “Moana” and “Frozen” with a touch of realism to a medium with unlimited creative possibilities.

At its core, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is yet another phenomenal Disney princess tale that continues to progress toward more diverse representation, complex subjects and nuanced characters. It invites viewers not to spectate Raya’s journey, but join in to the joys and sorrows along the way. By the film’s conclusion, I found myself emotionally invested in the well-being of most characters (hence the tears welling up in my eyes). It’s entrancing, empowering and genuine, breathing fire into the Disney franchise.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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