Remember when Disney princesses just lay about in glass cases waiting to be kissed? Raya and the Last Dragon gives us the latest iteration of the new style of Disney female, joining Mulan, Merida (from Brave) and Moana in a kick-butty world of smarts where any obvious interest in looking glasses or clothes is deeply suspect.
Disney love the ™ symbol but as I write Raya has not yet been made a part of the Princess Line™. She’s up there with the best of them so it can only be a matter of time. Her film has a driving story with emotional depth, a good voice cast, doesn’t overdo the cutes and there are no cloying songs. Best of all, the animation is vivid, detailed and takes hi-def up a notch.
With perhaps half a nod to the Chinese market, the plot repurposes the Three Kingdoms narrative so loved by the communist regime – a kingdom lacking a strong centre is a kingdom in trouble – with a story about a magical gemstone split into five chunks, each one held by a tribe from what used to be a unified kingdom called Kumandra. Raya’s “task” is to reunify the gemstone and the warring tribes, plus resurrect the dragons who used to guard the land, AND banish the Druun, the whirling evil force threatening to gobble up the country, AND bring her father back to life after he’s been turned into a chunk of basalt, as well as restore all the other petrified people of the kingdom. Deep breath.
Raya is from the Heart tribe, and what with the other four tribes being called Talon, Tail, Spine and Fang, there’s no doubting which tribe to side with. So we’re all obviously automatically Team Raya (rhymes with “higher”). We’re all also signed-up members, as we often tend to be in Disney’s world, of a political system based on hereditary monarchy. Raya’s dad is the kindly, naturally noble, democratically inclined (within limits) ruler whose too-trusting nature brings about his early petrification.
Trust turns out to be the film’s big theme, which allows the usual “follow your heart” mantra to pretty much sit this one out. Raya sets off on her quest for the gem armed with little more than her natural scepticism, riding a giant armadillo, picking up the last remaining dragon en route, before assembling a scrappy A Team of rebels including a punchy kid, a bolshie baby and a gigantic lumbering one-eyed badass with a soft heart.
Caught up in the clamour over the lack of roles for non-white people, Disney has sought to right decades of wrongs by insisting with sledgehammer subtlety that the voice cast be South East Asian(ish). Emphasis on the “ish”.
Whichever way you want to parse the politics, the cast float above it all and are excellent – Kelly Marie Tran (Vietnamese American), Gemma Chan (Chinese British, though I’ve never heard her describe herself that way), Sandra Oh (Canadian Korean) and Awkwafina (Chinese/Korean-American), with Awkwafina getting the best role and running with it as Sisu, the bumbling and extravagantly trusting dragon. She appears to be channelling Whoopi Goldberg’s vocal rhythms, but then both are native New Yorkers, which might actually count for more here than whatever ethnic markers the casting directors were looking out for.
Again the technology has leapt ahead. The animation is superb. There are more imaginatively rendered flashbacks to historical legend directed by Paul Briggs and John Ripa but the main body of the film (directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada) is as sharp and as realistic as it wants to be, with a particular interest in the rendering of light and water, plus the odd steampunk moment suggesting Disney are warming up for a venture into Studio Ghibli territory. Good luck.
Respect for one’s elders, that’s a South East Asian thing, right? Though hassled grandparents might be sparing a thought for the older people at the wrong end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the frequent references to the honouring of family and tradition in a film about a character who boldly goes her own way neatly sums up Disney’s current cake/eat position on inherited values – they’re a serving suggestion.
It all adds to the fun. Talking of adding, here’s another Disney Princess to put in the premier league.
Raya and the Last Dragon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021