March 4, 2021

CINEMA | Disney Rides 'Raya and the Last Dragon' into Asia

"We must find the last dragon."
Kelly Marie Tran Awkwafina Don Hall Carlos López Estrada | Raya and the Last Dragon | Disney Plus
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Walt Disney Animation heads to mythical Southeast Asia for its latest animated action-adventure fantasy tale, Raya and the Last Dragon. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada animate a typical dragon tale of uniting divided regions into its historically united nation through the use of a magical Dragon Gem everybody covets.

Starring Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran's vocals as the eponymous ferocious warrior princess training to become a guardian protector, there's a vibrant, propulsive quality to her Disney Princess-esque hero's journey. However, its overly familiar feel tries to refresh itself with some noted Asian flourishes.

Co-starring Awkwafina (Chinese/Korean-American), Gemma Chan (British Chinese), Daniel Dae Kim (Korean-American), Sandra Oh (Korean-Canadian), and Benedict Wong (British Chinese), many of the voice actors featured are of East Asian descent, whereas the story focuses on blending the cultures of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and other surrounding Southeast Asian areas in a fictional fantasy land called Kumandra. It's hard to reconcile so many distinct historical backgrounds being mashed up together somewhat indiscriminately.

Kelly Marie Tran Awkwafina Gemma Chan Izaac Wang Benedict Wong Thalia Tran Don Hall Carlos López Estrada | Raya and the Last Dragon | Disney Plus

Scripted by Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Malaysian-American screenwriter Adele Lim, the animated film has all the hallmarks of mythical storytelling yet its diversity, predominantly featuring Asian-Americans, kind of flattens any cultural specificity into a melting pot of influences. It's a hard line to walk by trying to be entertainment for everyone, respectful of its Asian touchstone, and also be its own distinct cultural product.

As a sort of pan-Asian mythical fantasy, Raya and the Last Dragon is a sumptuously realized action-adventure tale full of wondrous imagery and thrilling fighting sequences. But by being so diversely broad and mixing together its wider Asian influences into a culturally specific region, its blending feels more western than eastern. Nonetheless, its cultural fun highlights the usually Disney Princess fare of high-quality entertainment.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream on Disney+ through Premier Access.

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