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Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a sumptuous fantasy — but it makes a mess of Southeast Asian culture

The animated fantasy is a gorgeous, if generic, vehicle for a great Disney princess.

Raya seeks the help of the legendary dragon, Sisu, in Raya and the Last Dragon, out on March 5.
Walt Disney Studios
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Disney’s latest princess film, Raya and the Last Dragon, delivers a lush, beautifully animated, endearing, and engaging story. It’s funny and well written, with dark, layered themes, memorable characters, a pair of deliciously kickass teen girl rivals, and perhaps the most overtly political messaging Disney has pushed in decades. Plus, it’s a fantasy adventure that promises to bring Disney fans a long-awaited treasure: Raya, the first Southeast Asian Disney princess.

But it has drawn its share of skeptics, and for good reason: The film, premiering on Disney+ and in select theaters March 5 (with an accompanying short film, Us Again), is a conundrum.

The film’s writers, Qui Nguyen (The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) are, respectively, Vietnamese American and Malaysian American, and copious research has gone into Raya to make the film feel true to Southeast Asian viewers. The dragons in Raya are mainly based on Southeast Asian folklore, and the visuals and settings are mainly drawn from the region’s real geography.

But the film’s production team has drawn criticism from Southeast Asian viewers for casting East Asian actors in many of its most important roles, rather than Southeast Asian actors. Though the title role went to Kelly Marie Tran, a Disney fan favorite of Vietnamese descent (known for Star Wars), the main cast also includes Awkwafina in the role of the “last dragon,” Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s father, and Gemma Chan as Raya’s nemesis Namaari. They are respectively Chinese and Korean American, Korean American, and British Chinese.

Voice actors have been fighting to win roles that reflect their ethnicity, a fact that led to early criticism around Raya and its casting. But there is another worry about the use of East Asian actors: The blending of the distinct and varied cultures of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and half a dozen other nations has left Raya and the Last Dragon feeling indistinct and insensitive.

Fans of the Airbender/Korra franchise might be reminded of those series and note that they did much of what Raya is trying to do now, better, 15 years ago. Movie buffs may feel like Raya has taken 80 percent of its beats from other animated stories, from The Lion King to The Dark Crystal. But the most disappointing thing about Raya is that Southeast Asian Disney fans may struggle to find any identifiable part of their specific cultures in the film’s gorgeous but messy world-building.

Raya is the story of a society struggling to reunify and a girl struggling to trust in the wake of betrayal

A young Raya with her father, before things get dire.
Walt Disney Studios

Raya (pronounced “RYE-ah”) is set in a fantasy land called Kumandra, a blend of Southeast Asian nations and cultures. The real-world region consists of about a dozen countries, including parts of India and the South Pacific, which between them encompass hundreds of miles, languages, cultures, and islands. In Raya, this diverse part of the planet has been condensed to a group of five loosely defined tribes who aren’t clearly mapped to any specific culture but instead to parts of a dragon: There’s Fang, Talon, Spine, Tail, and Raya’s home, Heart.

Centuries ago, Kumandra was a happy land freely cohabited by the five human tribes and dragons, until the land was invaded by a strange monster species called the Druun, who turn everything they touch to stone. It’s not clear what the Druun live on, or how they arose, or how to fully defeat them. They’re essentially a purple-cloud plot device for everything that comes afterward — several centuries of geopolitical strife. The Druun wipe out the dragons, but one, Sisu (Awkwafina) sacrifices herself and uses all her magic to vanquish the Druun threat. With no dragon magic to protect them, the tribes of Kumandra fall into conflict.

When we meet Raya, her father, the leader of Heart, is trying diligently to reunite the tribes once and for all by convincing them to trust one another. Raya is still just a young girl, so she’s easy prey for Namaari, the daughter of the visiting Fang leader. They bond over their shared love of dragons and a wish to find Sisu, who, according to legend, was never killed in the Druun war, but instead went into hiding. When Raya entrusts Namaari with a secret, however, Namaari betrays her, setting off a chain of events that leads to the sudden return of the Druun.

The resurrected Druun turn masses of people into stone, including Raya’s father. The planet falls out of ecological balance, and the divisions between the remaining tribes grow even fiercer. With no alternative, Raya devotes herself to trying to find the river where Sisu may be hiding, in the hope of getting her help to heal the world.

The dragons of this universe draw inspiration from the benevolent magical dragons of Vietnamese folklore, with a design based on the naga folklore of Thailand and other countries. They’re delightful, non-threatening, and non-fire-breathing — colorful serpents who fly, swim, and generally behave like wriggly pets. As voiced by Awkwafina, Sisu is a fun addition to the Disney canon of magical sidekicks; she’s wisecracking but earnest, rambunctious but wise, and her loving nature is a good foil for Raya, who’s vulnerable but much tougher, thanks to Namaari. Meanwhile, Namaari has grown up to lead her home tribe, Fang, but has begun questioning the aggressive direction of her clan.

Determined to reunite the tribes as Raya’s father always intended, Raya and Sisu journey to each of the other four lands to try and steal the remaining dragon crystals they each control, in hopes that uniting all the crystals can return the dragons to Kumandra, vanquish the Druun, and bring peace. Predictably, this road trip brings them lots of new friends and enemies. The biggest enemy of all, of course, is Raya’s archnemesis — but if you’re vibing the Airbender-ness of it all, you’ve probably guessed that Namaari may turn out to be the reluctant ally Raya has needed all along.

Raya is a gorgeous, accessible film, with engaging characters, a winning heroine, and sumptuous animation from start to finish. It’s a film you’ll want to look at again and again, and its story will hold up fairly well on repeat viewing. As a bonus, Us Again, the short film that accompanies Raya on streaming platforms and in theaters, delivers stunning animation and big-hearted emotions throughout its noisy but wordless seven minutes. Its story of an elderly couple rekindling their relationship through their love of dance pays homage to the grand tradition of movie musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to La La Land, but also feels like an accidental anthem for a vibrant city whose nightlife scenes have dimmed fully during quarantine. You will cry, so be prepared, but Us Again’s dazzling seven minutes alone are worth Raya’s hefty add-on streaming price of nearly $30.

For most Disney fans, the main feature will also be worth the price. Yet the blended version of Southeast Asia on display in Raya may leave viewers conflicted about the way the movie flattens all of Southeast Asia into the land of Kumandra.

Raya treats Southeast Asian cultures like a buffet

Each of the five tribes in Raya’s fractured homeland has its own distinctive geography and what seems to be an approximation of a distinctive culture. But they aren’t recognizably linked to cultures in our own world — not in the way that (to use what still seems to be the best example of this exercise in US animation) the four tribes of Airbender map identifiably to Inuit, Chinese, Tibetan, and Japanese cultures.

Throughout my viewing of Raya, I was confused about what signifiers I was meant to recognize as a viewer; initially, I thought Raya’s tribe, Heart, was meant to be based on Thailand. Then I settled on Indonesia, then on Vietnam; eventually, as the film’s cultural guideposts kept shifting — Thai decor seemed to merge with Cambodian temples, Filipino weaponry, Vietnamese mountains I gave up.

Hollywood’s push for diversity has also brought with it a renewed understanding of the importance of cultural sensitivity, and Disney’s outsized influence means its films draw close scrutiny. Moana ran into controversy in 2016 because of its buffoonish depiction of the Polynesian god Maui, which some found offensive, as well as the inclusion of elements of Indigenous cultures that some viewers regarded as racist stereotypes. “The filmmakers cut off manageable chunks of exotica,” argued Maori writer Morgan Godfery, “while refusing to keep faith with actual Polynesian histories and mythologies.”

Perhaps because of that backlash, Raya’s creative team doesn’t appear to have engaged an existing mythos at all, apart from the dragon concept. Unlike most films in the Disney princess pantheon, Raya’s story isn’t taken from any extant cultural source, but comes from the brain of veteran Disney director Bradley Raymond, known mainly for directing sequels like Lion King 3 and Pocahontas 2. Here, he’s credited with generating the story ideas upon which Raya is based.

That’s not to say that white men or white creatives — or indeed any of us — aren’t capable of generating meaningful stories about cultures not their own. At a bare minimum, doing so requires respect and research, and Raya’s production did plenty of the latter. In preparation for the film, members of Disney’s production and animation teams reportedly traveled throughout Southeast Asia, making stops in seven countries. In aiming for respectful cultural representation, they created the Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust, an assemblage of various experts including, according to Looper, “a textile expert, linguists (who approved every name in the film), and a visual anthropologist.”

But much of this careful attention to detail seems to have been executed mainly as background aesthetic, rather than as key parts of the storyline or the worldbuilding. While the production team includes numerous East Asian and Southeast Asian creators, including writers, animators, technical effects crew, and producers, most of the project decisions ultimately rested with directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and their co-directors, Paul Briggs (Big Hero 6) and John Ripa (Moana).

The biggest problem, however, is that all of that well-intentioned research seems to have been done for the explicit purpose of flattening Southeast Asia’s diversity, condensing a striking array of distinct cultures into five tribes. Aspects of cultures from other regions are blended in, too. There were numerous times the film’s aesthetics will remind viewers more of Korea and China, and even farther-flung places like Samoa and Central America, than Southeast Asia. Viewers analyzing the trailer have further commented that the film’s temples and architecture are uncharacteristically decor-free, and that the clothing lacks distinctively detailed patterns common in the nations.

After the fiasco of 2020’s terrible Mulan remake, in which the film’s East Asian cultural signifiers were put on display but badly mishandled, you might think that a generalized approach is a safer way to go. And initially, I was fully on board with that idea, because I was wooed by Raya’s many other strengths.

Raya herself is a wonderful protagonist, easily one of my favorite Disney princesses by a mile, though she’s justifiably drawn many comparisons to the Airbender franchise’s hot-blooded hero, Korra (they even bear a striking visual resemblance). She’s strong, bold, clever, and raids tombs with all the wiles of Indiana Jones. She and Namaari have a satisfying rivalry complete with thrilling fight scenes. The side characters are a mostly forgettable hodgepodge of typical Disney side characters — there’s a scheming team of monkeys and a conniving orphan baby who are all so outlandishly bizarre they cycled around from “horrifying” to “macabre treat” — but Awkwafina is a gem.

By the time I was near the end, however, the film’s innumerable borrowed tropes really began to get to me. I started to question the construction of the entire project: How many of the story elements really came from Nguyen and Lim, or from the head of story, Thai American animator Fawn Veerasunthorn? How many from Bradford, or from the six other people who all share story credits with Nguyen and Lim, most of whom are white?

Even the score by James Newton Howard, which I initially found lush and ebullient, increasingly sounded like one of his phoned-in action scores, but with added vague chanting in non-specific languages. As the credits rolled, I found myself studying the long list of English names associated with the score’s production, wondering how it would sound to a Southeast Asian audience member. The outro song, usually one of the highlights of any Disney film, is here a forgettable number called “Lead the Way.” It’s written and performed by Jhené Aiko, an artist of partial Japanese heritage who at one point gives up on lyrics and just starts singing “Kumandra, Kumandra” over and over, as if simply naming the film’s setting could clarify anything for us.

This all may sound like futile nitpicking, but it really isn’t. Raya’s generic attributes lend the film a vague quality overall. Compared to the memorable localization of Disney films like Frozen, which referenced actual rococo art, or Coco, which fully immersed the audience in Mexican culture, Raya feels thin. Its lack of specificity works against it.

Perhaps the biggest tell that Raya isn’t the representation Southeast Asian Disney fans deserve is that many of them won’t actually be able to watch it with the rest of us — because Disney+ is currently only available in three Southeast Asian countries. If there are stronger objections to be made to this film, the people best in a position to make them may not get to see it.

And so the film mainly leaves me questioning who Raya’s intended audience is — and whether it was meant to appeal to Southeast Asian viewers. It seems clear that fans deserved a better movie that more fully and overtly embraced their cultures, instead of simply borrowing their beautiful settings for an average fantasy story.