Disney has done it again, and all for the first time. Raya and the Last Dragon is, like almost every Disney movie, sweepingly told, gorgeously animated, and smart and wise and inspiring. Like never before, however, this is a story in which pretty much every significant player is female. It’s not anything the movie attacks us with, in case that’s something you’re worried about, in case you see movies featuring mostly all male characters, as the vast majority do, as merely neutral while those centering women must be high on scoring woke feminazi points. It only slowly dawned on even me, who really pays attention to this stuff, that the protagonist, the villain, the sidekick, and all but a couple of ancillary characters are all women and girls. (It didn’t diminish one bit the enjoyment of the seven-year-old boy with whom I watched Raya, in case that’s a thing you worry about. Boys need female role models, too, and it’s not like giving them medicine, either.)
Also like never before, not just for Disney but — as far as I can recall — for a mainstream entertainment aimed at a Western audience, this is a fantasy set in an invented Southeast Asia and informed by traditional Southeast Asian culture and mythology, in much the same way that so much of our fantasy has been set in an invented Europe informed by medieval European culture and mythology. I’m not entirely sure if a pan-Asian approach was the best idea for Disney’s first go at this milieu: Raya is perhaps missing some of the specificity of, say, Moana and its spin on Polynesian folklore. And it’s not like we have a long history of telling Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian fantasy stories that have given us a pop-culture grounding in those individual traditions, as we have with Scottish, French, German, Spanish, and other European traditions. (Shirley Li has a terrific piece in The Atlantic on some of the problems herein.)
Still, it’s a start. And it’s a lovely start, though this story is set in a fractured land among broken peoples. The realm of Kumandra was once happy, united, and prosperous, until the Druun came, smoke monsters that suck life from humans and turn them to stone. Long ago, kindly dragons — elemental, snakelike demigods inspired by the Naga of numerous Eastern mythologies — used their powers to create a jewel, an orb imbued with their magic to hold the Druun at bay. But 12-year-old Raya (the voice of Kelly Marie Tran: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) accidentally allowed it to be damaged, even though her family — led by her father, chieftain Benja (the voice of Daniel Dae Kim: Always Be My Maybe, Hellboy) — has been specifically tasked with protecting the orb. (Yes, Raya is a Disney princess. Her story isn’t about romance; there’s not even a hint of that. This isn’t brand-new for Disney, but it’s good to see that this may be becoming its storytelling norm.) Now, eighteen-year-old Raya sets out to fix her mistake; to find the last, lost dragon, who might be able to fix the orb; and hopefully to reunite her world and bring it back from widespread suffering and mistrust to a place of peace and harmony again.
The Disney paradigm is hard at play again here, and though it’s familiar, it still works. Formula it may be, but it’s a winning one, and I cheered it. A noble heroine on a quest? Hell, yes. With the help of faithful sidekicks? We should all be so lucky. One is her “steed” Tuk Tuk, the sort of half armadillo, half pug beast of burden she rides like a horse around the many diverse former lands of Kumandra on her journeys. (Tuk Tuk is “voiced,” though that’s mostly sqeaks and grunts, by Alan Tudyk [Frozen II, Aladdin], whom I like to think the character was named for.) Another is Sisu (the voice of Awkwafina: Jumanji: The Next Level, The Angry Birds Movie 2), that last dragon… whom I didn’t expect to be so funny. I was not prepared for a goofy dragon, and I adore her.
It’s the unanticipated nuance and subtlety of Raya that I love, even as it comes amidst some of the usual cartoon kiddie-kiddie high-comedy shenanigans. Raya’s nemesis Namaari (the voice of Gemma Chan: Captain Marvel, Mary Queen of Scots), her warrior-princess counterpart from another Kumandra region? She isn’t quite as evil or as narrowminded as Raya supposes. But much more importantly, this is a story about a whole world having to collaborate to restore itself. This is a story about civilizational catastrophe than can be fixed only when everyone works together and has faith that those who feel like enemies only want the best for themselves and for their families and friends, too. Raya and the Last Dragon is a movie about the audacity of optimism, and of presuming the best of others, rather than the worst. This is an ethos the world needs right now.