The newly released Disney animated film, “Raya and the Last Dragon”, is a family movie with complex themes. The film delivers three aspects to the audience: the glimpse of Southeast Asia, promotion of feminism, and addressing the current racism issues. The film consisted of beautiful animation, a charming sense of humor, and exciting actions. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a huge success for Disney’s original story, it will leave the audience with a smile on their face, warmth in their heart, and hope for the future.
For many, Disney is a representation of dreams, childhood memories, possibilities, and role models. The company had been producing stories of genetically European fairy tale kingdoms since 1937, presenting the image of the fragile and powerless princesses waiting for a rescue from a charming prince. Disney neglected the strength of females and other parts of the world. Until recent years, as the awareness for women’s rights rises, films such as “Frozen” and “Moana” had female characters to complete the quest and save the world. Coming from a similar approach, “Raya and the Last Dragon” portrayed the first Southeast Asian princess, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), to save the broken fantasy land of Kumandra, without waiting for a man to do so.
Since “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a quest narrative story, predicated features and plot is for certain. For example, Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk), the cute third-pill bug, third-armadillo, and third-pug hybrid as sidekicks. Unlike the fixed impression of a princess, Raya does not acquire manners in a fancy puffy dress, instead, she learns martial arts from her father (Chief Benja, voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) and trained to become a warrior to protect the gem that keeps Kumandra safe.
In an interview with Samantha Labat, Transtresses the importance for children to see diversity in films and the evolution of the Disney princess.
“I think growing up our perception of what was beautiful and what it meant to be a princess, we were sort of seeing the same image over and over and over in terms of what kind of person we should want to be,” says Tran. “It does make it impossible if you’re not seeing yourself represented and you’re not seeing yourself in heroes and in these sort of big stories, especially at a young age.”
The co-playwright Qui Nguyen also commented on the power of showing Raya as a brave and independent young woman, unlike the masculine hero presented in Hollywood.
“I think it’s just important to be able to give our lead character as much nuance and complexity and let her as an actor, as a character, be able to feel all the feelings of the human experience,” says Nguyen. “Because I think that often when you get to see [the person saved the world] often is a male character…We’re all very aware that we’re putting out a hero that isn’t often seen very much in Hollywood cinema and we knew how important that was going to be for a kid.”
“Raya and the Last Dragon” had changed the history of princesses to be more diverse, and from being rescued to rescuing the world. The film itself is creating history by having a woman leading the production team and an all-female technical team. This film represents the succession of female leads both on-screen and off-screen.
On the Walt Disney Company website, an article was published featuring the female crews behind “Raya and the Last Dragon.
“The more people of different genders, backgrounds, and ethnicities are in the room, the more of ourselves we’ll see on the screen, which is incredibly exciting. There is so much we can learn from each other, which in turn serves to deepen our empathy for one another, and our ability to all work together, embracing our unique contributions, to make a better world,” said Osnat Shurer, producer of “Raya and the Last Dragon”.
“As we move forward, our studio—led creatively by Jenn Lee, a woman who is a creative force in her own right, joined by women in leadership at every level—continues to lead the way towards greater inclusion on the screen and behind the camera, Shurer pointed out, exciting to see the ever-growing number of equally strong women working on and behind the scenes at the studio.
One highlight of the film is that due to the social distancing restriction, actors and actresses were filmed from home, without direct interaction with one another. During the press conference, the cast shared their experiences of filming in distance, and how they managed to develop the “voice” of their character.
“The connections of all the actors and actresses with the material and their characters have been so special…we have teary conversations with all of you just about what the character and the story meant to you,” said Carlos López Estrada, the director of “Raya and the Last Dragon. “You don’t get to see that very often, we have a group of people that really believe in this movie and what it represents. I think that just moved us and every single person working on the movie.
The deep connection was formed by the actors and actresses’ backgrounds from Southeast Asia, and their enthusiasm to introduce their culture to the world. Moreover, Tran is the first Southeast Asian actress to portray a princess in Disney.
The fantasy land Kumandra is a fusion of various countries in Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, where the production team had visited. From the concept to the little details, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is inspired by the culture, food, custom, landscape, and weapons of Southeast Asian cultures.
According to UNESCO, the sword Raya uses is called a “Keris”, a silat wavy dagger from the island Java of Indonesia. Keris is narrow but has a wide asymmetrical base, and is designed for fighting in a confined space. There are a rich spirituality and mythology behind the keris, it is considered to possess magical power, and used for display, as talismans with magical powers, weapons, sanctified heirlooms, auxiliary equipment for court soldiers, accessories for ceremonial dress, an indicator of social status, a symbol of heroism. As the symbol of the dagger, Raya indeed is a princess with high social status and a mighty heroine. Another interesting blend of Southeast Asian culture in the movie is Tuk Tuk, Raya’s vehicle. The origin of the term “tuk tuk” is after the taxi-motorcycle hybrid in Thailand, since he functions as Raya’s vehicle.
At the beginning of the film, Chief Benja tried to offer peace by inviting the tribes for a meal. He made a soup that included 5 spices from each tribe. Though each spice has a strong taste, together, they taste harmonious. The bowl of soup highlights the theme of trust in “Raya and the Last Dragon”. Every tribe fights against each other aiming for the gem that protects them from the Druun because they believe it will bring wealth and fortune.
Similar to the situation of Kumandra, today’s American society faces the issue of racial discrimination, countless cases of Asian hate crimes arose due to COVID-19. “Raya and the Last Dragon” project the strength of unity, the enemy is not each other, it’s the virus.
Overall, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an aspirational film. Its beautiful animations, comical effects, and heartwarming scenes are the magic that the world needed right now.
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