Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review of Raya and the Last Dragon

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Where recent Disney Princess movies reminded young girls that they can be heroes too, Raya and the Last Dragon teaches viewers about the dangers of tackling it on their own. It’s a smart new evolution of the coming-of-age action princess story, with a clear line back to the princess’s predecessors in Frozen and Moana. Like Moana, Raya launches out into the world on a classic hero’s journey. Like Elsa, Raya is emotionally closed at the start of the film. Unlike these other heroines, Raya doesn’t lack self-confidence or an understanding of her abilities. She’s a talented fighter, a quality she doesn’t question – and it’s about time. Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s first film starring a Southeast Asian princess, opens with its own lore. The once prosperous land of Kumandra was teeming with dragons, creatures whose existence was tied to water and life itself. When the villainous drune attacked – an enemy capable of turning everything to stone – the dragons fought to defend themselves and the humans. The last living dragons pooled their power in the Dragon Jewel, which resurrected humans. But the dragons have remained frozen in time, except for Sisu, the last living dragon. Raya’s epic quest begins when the Dragon Gem shatters, releasing the drune into the world.

The film advances the groundwork laid by Frozen and Moana, who ushered in a modern era of princesses who weren’t focused on romance, but rather independent and determined to save their people and their world. Where Elsa and Moana both spent their films growing in power, individuality and freedom – each with their respective ballads, the power of earworms – Raya’s hero’s journey is marked by times when she is challenged to make new friends and count on them to fight for her. cause. By the end of the movie, I had fallen in love with the character Raya had become and I was fully invested in the friends she had made.

Visual development of Raya and the Last Dragon

The framing of Raya and the Last Dragon around themes of trust breathes new life into Disney’s animated action-adventure format. Waypoints along Raya’s hero’s journey challenge her to be vulnerable with others – in addition to posing physical challenges, like swinging between ravines – giving the supporting cast real opportunities to shine. , and Ray has plenty of opportunities to outsmart his opponents.

As Raya and the dragon Sisu pass through the regions of Kumandra (tail, talon, spine, fang, and heart), their relationship deepens. This is also true of Raya’s confrontations with Namaari, a childhood friend turned villain (who is also a princess). Each fight reveals something new about their difficult past and how they could redeem themselves. The discarded romance gives Raya and the Last Dragon more room to give platonic relationships their due.

Raya and the Last Dragon is also one of Disney’s best heartbreak movies. Disney princess movies have always been about heartbreak, as virtually every princess has lost a family member (or more) at the start of their films. In previous films, these deaths primarily act as a backstory and character motivation. In contrast, every significant character in Raya and the Last Dragon has suffered devastating personal loss, is driven by grief, and has spent a lot of time alone. Their decision to trust each other – to form a chosen family – seems much more meaningful with this weight.Disney Princesses have always had a huge influence on pop culture, especially for American children. Toys, costumes, and music from any recent release may seem like a must-have. Raya and the Last Dragon will give Southeast Asian girls not one but two princesses – both of whom are incredible fighters, and both learn valuable lessons about leaning on friends and family for help. Before that, young Disney fans of Asian descent had Mulan, the beloved classic that Raya and the Last Dragon effectively paid homage to without feeling recycled. (Some parallels with Mulan are obvious: a young woman using her combat skills on a quest to protect her father, and a dragon companion voiced by a comedian.)

Of course, Raya and the Last Dragon debuts an audience with higher expectations for cultural representation than those who grew up with Mulan. At a time when the number of Asian-centric films is steadily increasing, but still limited – and Southeast Asian actors are under-represented compared to East Asian actors – this puts a special pressure on Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess.

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Disney has done a lot of research. Similar to Moana, Disney has created what they call a “Story Trust” artists, academics and others, on whom they have relied for questions of cultural accuracy. The team visited countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen are both from South East Asia, as is Kelly Marie Tran who voices Raya. But there’s the fact that most of the other voice actors – a roster filled with talent that includes Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Awkwafina, and Sandra Oh – are from East Asia. And because Kumandra is a ‘fantasy’ world drawn from a number of different countries in a larger region, it risks blurring cultural references to the point of becoming unrecognizable or inconsistent for people who expected to identify with the world. movie.

It’s a fine line to follow, and part of a larger conversation about the extent to which films featuring unrepresented ethnic groups are urged to carry the burden of “accurately portraying” that group. The idea that any film, even if it meets the highest standards of research and casting, could capture “Southeast Asia” is already collapsing. There is no single identity, because Southeast Asians are not a monolith. And like Mulan, this movie mostly reads as being clearly American, with jokes about things like working on group projects in school that feel a bit out of place in a supposedly fantasy world.

It’s ultimately a film whose action and heart I really enjoyed, with a princess who really fascinates me. It’s also a film that I hope to see in theaters. Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart are each vibrantly animated. The creepy drune evokes the seething threats of Princess Mononoke of Miyazaki. And the fight scenes are especially exciting – the fighting styles in the film are based on Muay Thai and Pencak silat, and grounded in real-world physics. When a character takes a punch, or when Raya parades with her father’s keris, he has real weight that gives fights higher table stakes. Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess would only look even more powerful on the big screen.

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