I’m seeing COVID in a lot of movies right now. I’ve already drawn strong parallels between the pandemic and Jaws, as well as News of the World, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, An American Werewolf in London, Twelve Monkeys and Vivarium (with those last two it’s hard to avoid) and I don’t think it is a stretch to project the current international situation on to Disney’s big new animation either. In the story an apparently sentient plague has indiscriminately swept through the world, decimating communities. Then when a magical cure is found rather than this bringing different countries together, the people squabble and fight over who should have access to it. That certainly sounds familiar to those of us in Europe right now. The film even starts with the hero wearing a face covering to head out away from home. Yep, whether this be by accident or by design, Raya and the Last Dragon is a Disney Princess Movie about Coronavirus.
Even without this though, the film clearly aims to be a movie for the ages. Gone is the romance (probably – more on that later), nowhere to be seen are the pretty dresses and distinctly absent are the songs. We do get the animals sidekicks so we’re not in entirely foreign territory but even with the historical context this feels fiercely contemporary and in many respects more akin to the action adventures on the Marvel and Star Wars strands of Disney+.
Actually though, and this is another way in which it reflects modern sensibilities, we are in entirely foreign territory. This is very far from being the first Disney Animated Feature to be set outside of the US; of the fifty nine films they have now produced only Lady and the Tramp, The Princess and the Frog, Pocahontas, The Rescuers, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Home on the Range, Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear, and arguably Chicken Little and Zootropolis, are based in the States. Following on from Moana though, they are demonstrably trying to depict different cultures properly on screen in a way they didn’t with Beauty & the Beast in France, Frozen in Scandinavia or even Mulan in China.
Raya and the Last Dragon is described as being a tale of a mythical land in South East Asia. Of course this covers a wide area and apparently most of the voice cast that includes Kelly Tran, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh and Daniel Dae Kim are of East Asian heritage. I don’t think this is quite like casting Chinese actors as Japanese characters, which used to happen all the time, but they are two different areas with South East Asia covering Singapore, Cambodia, East Timor, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia and East Asia being China, Japan, Mongolia, North and South Korea and Taiwan. Nonetheless this is the first time that 60% of the Earth’s population are going to see themselves represented in this way and it is better than the voices being done by Americans and Brits. Texas’ own Alan Tudyk is in the cast too but he’s becoming a bit of a good luck charm for the studio after being in ten of their recent projects so that’s why he is there. British/Canadian actor Cassie Steele was originally cast in the lead but was replaced by Kelly Maria Tran whose parents actually are from Vietnam.
Like Frozen 2, the narrative also moves away from the distinct ideas of good and evil that were typical of these types of films for so long. No one is truly bad but they do bad things and the plot is built largely around the mistrust this breeds and the damage this can do by itself even without nasty magic and murderous sickness spirits. Like Frozen, Moana, Zootropolis, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled the main players are seen as children at the start but I don’t think this is about selling more dolls on this occasion because even the kids can be deceitful little double crossers.
There is a very slight suggestion that adolescent Raya’s early misjudgment of a girl she meets is because she is attracted to her and Tran has said she was playing her as lesbian but this might be hoping for another level of representation that isn’t there. While I’d love Disney to finally have a gay hero I don’t think it needed to be here. I like Raya and the Last Dragon’s concentration on the adventure with no focus on romance. The action scenes are well orchestrated and the mission compelling.
Where I think Raya and the Last Dragon suffers in comparison to Disney’s last few animated films is in the character development. Raya herself is strong and Tran plays her really well but those around her, of which there are many – perhaps too many, are a little more thinly drawn (not literally, the animated is superb). Awkwafina is as good as usual but perhaps just a little understated, I guess being a dragon requires a certain level of decorum.
The other recent trend that the film carries on is with the feminism. Raya is a flawed but brave and incredibly competent warrior. She might be a little over skilled which could be why I responded to Anna, Elsa, Moana, Judy Hopps, Repunzel and their stories better but she is an excellent role model nonetheless.
I’m not sure that Raya and the Last Dragon is an instant classic and it may not provide a full distraction from everything right now for reasons discussed earlier. It is certainly a good film though and perfect for some family time on the sofa after a busy week at school.
Catch it on Disney+