As Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) states during her expository prologue to Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon (written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim), events that should unite us often end up doing the opposite. For the Asiatic world of Kumandra, this phenomenon occurs in the aftermath of their most dire moment once the plague known as druun (a virus-like creature that multiplies with every attack, turning living creatures into stone) is finally annihilated thanks to the bravery of a dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina)—the last of her kind. When all was thought lost, she found a way to create a gem from her soul that cured everything but her brethren. And rather than celebrate their salvation, humanity fought itself to possess it.
Factions are created (named for the part of Kumandra’s dragon-shaped lake where they reside such as Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail), mistrust is sown, and everyone bides their time before pouncing so that their people can benefit from the power that being crystal bearer brings. The truth of course shows that there is no benefit at all. Those without simply conjure prejudices that demand their similar misfortunes are a result of lacking that which they covet. Jealousy is bred out of what the jealous trick their minds into believing and enemies are subsequently made within the antagonistic air cultivated by the differences inherent to that which superficially separates “us” from “them.” Sisu selflessly saved mankind in time for mankind’s selfishness to inevitably destroy itself anyway.
That’s where we enter the story: a world facing extinction yet again without any means to stop it. The gem has been fractured and hoarded by each kingdom with no desire to open borders and unite. If not for Raya believing herself to blame thanks to hers and her father’s (Daniel Dae Kim’s Benja) hope that blind trust could mend fences, no chance at reversing the druun’s course would exist. Her quest to bring Sisu back to life on the wish of a fairy tale is thus born from guilt—an adventure that will take her into each territory to see how her six-year-old assumptions about them are actually her own prejudices masking realities that prove as bleak as hers. Admitting that humble truth is step number one.
The result ultimately resembles Avatar: The Last Airbender in many ways. There’s the Asiatic setting of warring nations, the debilitating sense of rage targeting outsiders for no reason other than a cultural upbringing that says it’s warranted, and the need for an alliance to find the strength to carry on as one species as opposed to multiple races. The big difference is therefore that Heart-born Raya, her ragtag bunch of compatriots (Izaac Wang’s Boun, Benedict Wong’s Tong, and a con-artist troupe consisting of a baby and three pickpocketing animals), and her sworn enemy (Gemma Chan’s Fang-born Princess Namaari) don’t have any “bending” abilities. Only the dragons can use magic and Sisu will need the power the gem shards supply to help save them all from mankind’s hubristic nature.
Throw a little Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy into the mix to ensure the real antagonist is our own propensity for self-destruction in the face of rampant lies and deceit and Raya and the Last Dragon fits perfectly into the Disney family of complex character studies relying upon diversity and humor to smooth out the rough edges dividing us. And regardless of the controversy surrounding the cast being mainly East-Asian despite a story firmly rooted in Southeast-Asian origins, the representation on display via voice actors, screenwriters, and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Head of Story is undeniable. Their film’s ability to bridge gaps and engage with non-American cultures means a lot more than a reductive “Kumbaya” messaging that forgets it’s uniting a nation divided rather than a fractured world.
We have to start somewhere, though, right? Coming from a country currently at odds with its reality, witnessing likeminded people putting aside their differences for the greater good is inspiring. Having that message occur amongst warring factions that all believe in the same thing (dragons as Gods) so that they can come together when faced with evidence of that shared truth rather than a species at religious and racial odds wherein proving one God exacerbates things further leaves a bit wanting. I’m probably extrapolating too much here and forgetting that young children experiencing any kind of settling of differences is a win during an era of white supremacy, tribalism, and the politicization of faith. Love your neighbor first and then work towards loving the strangers a world away.
Let this tale be a stepping-stone then—a beautifully rendered and energetic one at that. Let it entertain while planting the seeds of acceptance and understanding so our children can build upon that foundation and be better than the insular generations that failed before them. It’s not a coincidence that Raya and Namaari are the children of leaders (the latter’s mother is Sandra Oh’s Virana) who couldn’t get done what they must or that a pre-teen Boun and toddler Noi (Thalia Tran) are shouldering responsibilities well beyond their years. Young people must find it in themselves to break free from the acrimony their families implicitly teach them as a way to “stay safe” and vigilant against faceless aggressors now more than ever. It’s on them to make repairs.
While “O-o-h Child” by the Five Stairsteps isn’t playing during this climax, the camaraderie born from Raya and company knowing they’re no longer alone shines through nicely as they reckon with their mistakes to learn from them. That’s what it’s all about. We must look inward to understand why it is we feel the way we do about others because realizing the fallacy of those thoughts is how we accept that our actions have made them feel the same way about us. It’s not naïve then that Sisu wants to believe the best in everyone she meets. It’s utopian. And as we see happen throughout the film, it just takes one person’s willingness to take that leap (successful or not) to remind ourselves that brighter days remain possible.
Raya and the Last Dragon opens in theaters and is available for purchase on Disney+ via their “Premier Access” starting March 5.