It seems apt that Disney’s first ever South-East Asian princess should be called Raya. For she certainly is a character worthy of celebration.
There is certainly a lot to celebrate about Raya And the Last Dragon. As you might have already heard, the movie is inspired by South-East Asian cultures, and is written by a pair of South-East Asians, one of whom is Malaysian, Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians).
But even putting aside the emotional pull of being a South-East Asian watching a Disney movie based on our home region, Raya And The Last Dragon is still an exceptional film, as well as a wonderful exception to the Disney Princess rule (and I say this having watched every single one ever made, thanks in part to my six-year-old daughter).
First of all, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is like no Disney Princess before her. The Princess of the Heart, one of five lands that once formed the land of Kumandra, is also a strong spirited warrior princess, skilled in martial arts, and trained by her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to be a guardian of the Dragon Gem.
The gem is a mystical object that was used by the titular last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) to save the world from a “mindless plague” of shapeless blobs called the Druun that was sweeping across the land turning people and dragons into stone statues.
However, the desire for the last remnants of dragon magic tore Kumandra into five lands – Fang, Talon, Spine, Heart and Tail – and it is this greed and a mutual mistrust of one another that leads to the Dragon Gem being broken into five pieces and the Drunn returning once again (an event that Raya had a direct hand in, and thus setting up her quest to find Sisu and help restore the Dragon Gem).
Phew, that’s a lot of exposition. And we haven’t even gotten to the supporting characters yet, which include a wily young entrepreneur from Tail named Boun (Izaac Wang), a strong but sensitive Spine warrior named Tong (Benedict Wong), a cute con-baby from Talon named Noi (Thalia Tran) and last but not least, Namaari (Gemma Chan), the warrior princess of Fang and Raya’s arch-nemesis.
But it’s all necessary information, because of the ambitious range of cultures it covers and the story it tells. The plot itself is a departure from most of the other Disney Princess films (with perhaps the exceptions of Mulan and Moana), dealing with a central theme of trust and unity between different cultures, as well as how to deal with grief, loss, and even death.
If this all sounds a bit heavy for a Disney movie, it is to co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada's credit that the movie is anything but. From the fluid, ferocious fight scenes (choreographed by Lim’s co-writer Qui Nguyen, who is also an expert in South East Asian martial arts), to the comfortable chemistry between Tran and Awkwafina, the movie skips along as gracefully as a dragon dancing on raindrops.
Part of this fluidity is also due to the fact that Raya And The Last Dragon is also the first Disney Princess movie that isn’t a musical. Without the added distraction of characters bursting into song out of nowhere, it allows viewers to immerse themselves more in the overall experience and properly digest and savour the different flavours and senses that the movie evokes.
Having watched this on the television to prepare for interviews with the filmmakers, I can’t wait to watch it again in the cinema. From the gorgeously animated locations to the action-packed sequences, this isn’t just a Disney Princess movie – it’s an epic fantasy blockbuster in its own right, and DESERVES to be watched on the big screen.
And at the heart of it all, is Raya, arguably Disney's best and most memorable princess, and one I hope my daughter, and other children across the region, will be able to look up to. And as I have said before, that is truly a cause for celebration.
Raya And The Last Dragon opens in cinemas nationwide on March 5
Arguably Disney's best and most memorable princess