By now, Raya and the Last Dragon has been out in theatres for a while and will be on Disney Plus for free to watch by next month or by June. But I’ll do my best to keep things as spoiler-free as possible.
It goes without saying, but Asian stories, much like Asian cultures, are not a monolith. They do, however, have a different type of story structure and worldbuilding. Certain movie commentators were quick to compare how similar Raya was to Avatar: The Last Airbender and I can see why. When I first watched the trailer, Raya reminded me of Korra because of how she dressed. And if you watched the Honest Trailer, the premise is similar to Avatar in the sense that a world needed to be rebuilt.
What makes Raya unique are the major characters. Raya, in contrast to most Disney protagonists, is cynical. She has trust issues and her character arc centers on her learning how to open up and trust people again. She is both a warrior and a princess. She’s an amazing leader and I cannot wait to cosplay her when conventions are a thing again.
The reason why Raya has trust issues is Namaari from Fang, the main antagonist (aside from the Druun) who has what I call a “shonen rivalry dynamic” with Raya. Shonen rivals are common in anime. Think Deku and Bakugo from My Hero Academia or Goku and Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z or Naruto and Sasuke. The main character of a shonen anime always has a rival who acts as both a foil and an antagonist, but the rival isn’t always necessarily the main villain.
Sisu is an especially fascinating character to me. I don’t usually see “mentor” characters who have a more idealistic mindset. This is just a theory, but I think Sisu might be a child in dragon terms. The way she talks about her fellow dragons reminds me of a young child describing their older siblings. In the trailer, Sisu describes herself as the kid that didn’t contribute much to the group project and it’s established that she doesn’t have any specialized powers aside from being a good swimmer. Whatever other powers she gets in the movie were borrowed from the MacGuffin.
The supporting characters, while not as fleshed out as the main three, feel unique to me as I don’t usually see the comic relief sidekicks contributing to the main action, at least not in typical Disney movies. In fact, the only other instance where the comic relief side characters got involved with the main action was Mulan (the original, not the live-action version). All of them were very enjoyable to watch.
I also love that there are elements of Southeast Asian culture. I could recognize stuff that came from Filipino culture, especially the emphasis on food and gift-giving. (Incidentally, Sisu’s love language is totally gift giving and she’s a great example of how gift giving doesn’t mean spending big, but just the desire to give a gift to someone in the hopes of making them happy.)
Do I think this movie is 100% perfect? Heck no! Did I enjoy this movie? Totally! And I think it’s definitely one for the whole family. The moral of this movie is a bit of a mixed message considering real world implications, but it’s one that’s worth discussing. And at the end of the day, I love the idea of a positive, uplifting message in times such as these.
I really hope that there can be some kind of expanded material for this movie, in a similar vein to Tangled, which got its own series. I want to explore the world of Kumandra more because I really liked all the characters and want to spend more time with them.
And if you can’t take my word for it, I’ll share this video from a Filipino historian with a lot more cred: