Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest glittering offering, follows a girl named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) on her quest to piece together a fractured Dragon Gem in order to save her people from the literally petrifying Droon. Along the way, she encounters Sisu (Awkwafina), the last living dragon, who accompanies her on her journey. With creatures like a giant pill bug named Tuktuk (Alan Tudyk), a nod to the eponymous auto-rickshaws common in southeast Asia, and effervescent sidekicks—including a con artist baby named Noi (Thalia Tran)—the film is rollicking and vivacious, a feast for the eyes. Though the plot wobbles toward the predictable at times, ultimately Raya and the Last Dragon is a rich delight to watch.
Still, the film raises its fair share of questions. While it may not be entirely fair to task a fun movie for kids with the weight of politics and identity, the paucity of Asian-American film forces the issue. Consider, for example, the way the Raya and the Last Dragon boasts a majority Asian-American voice cast but fails to note that said cast is predominantly made up of east Asian American actors, despite its southeast Asian-inspired story. Though voice acting is an industry in which race has the potential to blur (see: Lauren Michele Jackson writing about Jenny Slate stepping down from Netflix’s Big Mouth), Raya and the Last Dragon is a film that markets itself as a representational win. It seems to say to its viewers, “Look! There are Asians on screen and behind it,” which makes the film’s lumping together of varied Asian-American experiences all the more puzzling.
Further compounding the confusion is the fictional land of Kumandra, where the film takes place. Supposedly an amalgam of myriad southeast Asian countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, and the Philippines), one can’t help but wonder why all these nations had to be thrown into a proverbial blender. Was it impossible to conceive of an entire story set in Thailand or the Philippines? The catch-all approach to an entire geographic region runs the risk of flattening distinct cultures, a danger that maps all too neatly onto the commonly lobbed racist accusation of monolith, that “all Asians are the same.” In truth, the Asian-American experience is deeply varied. Asian Americans continue to be the fastest growing immigrant population in the U.S. but have no majority country-of-origin. The demographic simultaneously encompasses some of the wealthiest and poorest people groups in the United States. Homogenizing southeast Asia into a fictional chimera feels overly blunt.
These issues of nuanced representation dovetail messily with problems of scarcity. Disney has long provided one-size-fits-all roles for nonwhite characters. For example, when I was six, I was given the chance to choose a store-bought costume for what would be one of my first Halloweens in the U.S. Though I’d never seen the movie, I chose the purple polyester dress of Disney’s Mulan. Even if I wanted to wear Belle’s frothy canary gown, even if I pretended to be Snow White in the comfort of my own home, I suspected that out in the world, as an Asian little girl on the suburban midwest sidewalk, I would need to know my place: I’d have to be Mulan.
Raya is an excellent character. I can picture many children clamoring to dress up as her for Halloween, with her wide hat and high-necked crimson cloak. Still, when we continue to tell stories that are discrete in their ethnic landscape, when there’s an Asian film with an Asian princess for Asian kids, how does it limit the viewer? There’s nothing wrong with a story that takes place in a fictional southeast Asian country. But in a time where Asians and Asian Americans are increasingly the target of racism and othering, I wonder what it does to make a story set in a bounded Asian fantasy world, especially for Asian-American children who live in a heterogenous real-life nation that wields that heterogeneity as a hierarchy. Simply put, does the existence of Raya and the Last Dragon merely amount to one more costume on the rack, bringing the grand total up to—two?
The more I think about it, the more the answer to all these questions seems to be: we simply need more movies. It’s not enough to have two animated feature films in two decades from one of the world’s biggest studios. We need more stories to depict an array of Asian American experiences, to see a diversity of character and story, to feel freedom in identity.
Ultimately, Raya and the Last Dragon is absolutely worth viewing. It’s an invigorating story about a courageous and lovable heroine who learns valuable lessons about trust and compassion along the way. The movie’s complete disinterest in stereotypical romantic storylines is starkly refreshing. Not to mention the sheer physical joy of watching Raya grapple with her rival Namaaria (Gemma Chan) in fluid fight scenes that speak to the film’s overall gorgeousness.
But beyond that, Raya and the Last Dragon is a representation of Asianness in a historical moment of increased anti-Asian sentiment and violence. Representation matters but not in the way we would like to think: it isn’t a treasure trove, a gaggle of objects to collect that reflect us prettily. Instead, representation shows us what stories are given power in the world. These stories can either imagine expansive, sweeping futures, or they can underscore narrow and cramped existences. Raya and the Last Dragon does both. v