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'Raya And The Last Dragon' Soars

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) faces off with her lifelong foe (voiced by Gemma Chan) in the rich, gorgeously wrought Disney film.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) faces off with her lifelong foe (voiced by Gemma Chan) in the rich, gorgeously wrought Disney film.

Much will, and deservedly should, be made of the setting of the gorgeously wrought Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon: A fantasy world drawn from a variety of Southeast Asian cultures.

For a company that's been setting so many stories in the same Generically European Fairy Tale Kingdom since 1937 (most recently in 2010's Tangled) it's another in a series of long-overdue steps toward making the world depicted onscreen look more like the world off of it. That's a noble goal, and an unalloyed Good Thing — but of course it also happens to be good for Disney's bottom line. Kids yearn to see themselves onscreen; more representation of different cultures means more kids can more directly avail themselves of the Disnefied thrills that white kids have taken for granted for decades. Nationally and globally, that means more enthusiastic butts in (real or virtual) seats.

What's more, the specific setting of Raya-- a land divided into five nations — potentially allows for a degree of specificity, with respect to discrete Southeast Asian cultural touchstones. And specificity, of course, is what seals the deal. Sharply observed and knowingly deployed cultural details are what transform the broad and abstract concept of onscreen representation into vivid, living stories with the power to reach into us and make us feel that our experiences are not simply valid and worthy, but that they have the potential to inspire others who may not share those experiences.

But Disney, at the end of the day, is gonna Disney. This is a company with a long history of throwing different cultures into its narrative Cuisinart, whether Maori and Polynesian (Moana) or Swedish, Norse, Danish and Icelandic (Frozen) or ... basically, all of Europe (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled). The crucial difference, of course, being that European and Scandanavian cultural mashups are thick on the ground, while depictions of Southeast Asian culture(s) in American media remain few and far between. So it's dispiriting, if not exactly surprising, to see some less-than-enthusiastic reactions from critics of Southeast Asian descent, ranging from the film's broad, salad-bar approach to the five nations it depicts (a bit of Muay Thai here, a Vietnamese floating market there, some Indonesian architecture there, etc.) to the fact that much of its main voice cast is composed of East Asian actors. Disney needs to get better at this, and those knowing, coming-from-inside-the-house critiques offer them a solid, actionable path forward.

Here's something that Raya and the Last Dragon gets clearly and unambiguously right, however: the Disney Princess as flawed hero.

Pop quiz, hotshot: What was Cinderella's defining character trait? Belle's? Ariel's? Rapunzel's?

Their "I want more than this" yearning and determination, you say? Wrong. That's a opening song, a statement of principles, not a personality.

Here's the answer: They didn't have personalities. No inner lives. No conflicting impulses. And that — in addition to their esophagus-with-hipbones body frames, and eyes so large they could have been creatures who've evolved to life in benthic caverns — is what makes them seem so flat, one-note and passive.

Raya, voiced marvelously and with deftly nuanced emotion by Kelly Marie Tran, is a Disney princess, technically: She's the daughter of Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) in a land called Heart. But she's a lot more than that — she's a warrior, for one thing (the film's numerous fight scenes are thrillingly choreographed). And she's something else, something no Disney Princess before her has been: She's complicated.

Specifically, she's got trust issues. Big ones. Which makes sense, given that it was a sudden but inevitable betrayal that kicked off the glorified fetch quest that forms the film's plot.

If you're not paying strict attention during Raya's opening monologue, you'll miss a whole lot, so here's the gist: The land was once whole and good and peopled with (dragoned with?) lots of dragons, but then some purple cloud-monsters came along and turned most everyone to stone. The last dragon remaining, named Sisu, unleashed a great power from a spherical gem, which banished the purple bad guys, but she disappeared in the process. In the aftermath, the people divided into five warring, mutually distrustful nations named for different parts of a dragon — Talon, Fang, Spine, Tail and Heart. Five hundred years later, an attempt at peace talks results in the dragon gem getting shattered into five pieces. Raya and her adorable pillbug pal/mount Tuk-Tuk set out to find Sisu and recover the five shards, reuniting the land and the people in the process.

From that elevator pitch, you may perhaps can discern that the basic mechanics of Raya's plot comprise your standard fantasy epic starter kit. Where the film comes brilliantly alive is in the details: The stunning landscapes, the bustling cities, the vocal performance of Awkwafina as Sisu, the hilarious contributions of a certain badass toddler (no spoilers, but trust me), and the friendship between Sisu and Raya, which serves the plot even as it's allowed the breathing room to exist in and of itself.

But back to Raya's trust issues: The film smartly grounds them in her reality as much as her psychology — it's a fact that her wary, suspicious nature ideally suits the dark, fallen world around her, and that Sisu's sunny, optimistic outlook leads to bad outcomes, again and again. A lesser, more linear film would find a faster route to Raya's finally recognizing the good in other people, but the screenplay keeps putting it off, exploring what passes, in an animated Disney film, for nuance.

It's her flawed nature that makes Raya the most compelling, most sympathetic and most layered Disney princess in the company's long history — and what makes Raya and the Last Dragon the best Disney animated feature in many years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.