What Does ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Get Right and Wrong About Representation?
Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess is here in their latest film Raya and the Last Dragon. The film has been hailed as a landmark breakthrough in representation for Southeast Asia and a showcase of minorities not often represented in western media. But some audiences feel that its attempt at representation still leaves much to be desired and Hollywood continues to settle for imperfect depictions.
Does Raya and the Last Dragon hold up to its promise of representation for Southeast Asians? What does the movie get right and wrong about the region? And does it deserve any of its hype or criticism?
The film takes place in a land broken into five tribes after the dragons sacrificed themselves to banish the evil spirits called Druun. When the Fang, Talon, Spine, and Tail tribes are invited by the Heart tribe to make peace, they end up fighting over a magical orb made by the dragons and it breaks into five pieces. The Druun re-emerge and each tribe grabs a piece of the orb before fleeing. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), princess of the Heart tribe, spends the next six years searching for Sisu (Awkwafina), who is said to be the last dragon alive. After finding and awakening Sisu, they join forces to retrieve all the orb pieces and drive the Druun away.
The filmmakers were said to have travelled all over Southeast Asia while researching for the film. Therefore Raya and the Last Dragon focuses not on one specific Southeast Asian country, but rather weaves together elements from the various cultures.
What Raya and the Last Dragon Gets Right
The spectacular opening animation is a great introduction to some Southeast Asian themes. The colours are reminiscent of batik, an Indonesian textile-dyeing technique, and the paper puppets are a clear homage to wayang kulit, or Indonesian shadow puppets. It was refreshing to see Disney attempt a different animation style albeit only for a short segment.
The film uses the aesthetics of the different tribes to showcase its Southeast Asian inspiration. These are most clearly seen in Fang, which was inspired by Angkor Wat and also very reminiscent of the lavish white and gold colour scheme of Thailand’s temples, as well as Talon, which is essentially a floating market full of bustling street vendors.
Small details such as Raya removing her shoes before entering the cave where the magical orb is held are heartwarming to see and help to bring the Southeast Asian influences beyond just the film’s aesthetics and solidify them in the culture of the world.
Other details that are derived from Southeast Asia include the fighting styles. At the start of the movie, Raya wields two arnis sticks in a duel against her father — arnis is the national martial art of the Philippines. Later on, we see Raya wielding a kris, a curved Indonesian blade, with a fighting style inspired by the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. Namaari, the princess of Fang, has a fighting style inspired by Muay Thai, fitting the backdrop of Fang’s Thai-Cambodian aesthetic. Raya’s animal companion, Tuk Tuk, is even named after a popular mode of transportation in the region.
One detail that particularly connected with me is the scenes with characters sharing meals with one another. Food has always brought people together in Asian culture and this portrayal felt like a true slice of Southeast Asian life.
Raya’s father, Chief Benja, first uses food to symbolise unity when he adds ingredients from the different tribes to create one delicious bowl of soup. Later in the movie, Raya and her team share a meal while travelling from one tribe to the next. These scenes take a step away from the action and allow the audience to bond with the characters just as they are bonding with one another.
In other scenes, we also get to see glimpses of native Southeast Asian fruits such as durians and rambutans. These are welcomed sights that make the film’s world feel more familiar to ours. Food has such a unique role in Southeast Asian culture and I actually wish there was more emphasis on this throughout the movie.
Where Raya and the Last Dragon Misses the Mark
The choice to incorporate multiple aspects of different cultures unfortunately muddies the world-building, at times creating confusing environments. The floating markets in Talon are an iconic feature of Thailand, but the people of Talon can be seen wearing sarongs, which are typically worn in Malay and Indonesian tradition.
Tail and Spine also have very different climates from Southeast Asia’s characteristic tropical climate. Tail is a hot and dry desert while Spine is located in a snowy bamboo forest. It seems that the inspiration behind the two tribes have been confused with other Asian regions, such as the Middle East and East Asia. This distracts from the focus on Southeast Asia and creates an inconsistency in the environment’s atmosphere.
Perhaps the biggest offender when it comes to weird artistic choices inaccurately portraying Southeast Asian culture is the design of Sisu the dragon. The first thing most would notice is that Sisu’s head and neck are covered in fur, almost like a mane. Dragons in Southeast Asian culture have never been depicted with fur and are often more akin to scaly reptiles. They bear some resemblance to East Asian dragons in that they have long bodies and do not have wings, but they are also symbols of power and majesty.
Dragons are common motifs in architecture, religious art, textiles, and even furniture. Because of what they represent, some might even say that dragons in Southeast Asian culture can be quite terrifying to look at.
Understandably Disney would have wanted a more kid-friendly design. However, in the scene where Sisu rescues Raya from a duel with her rival, Namaari, it’s difficult to feel any level of awe or grandeur when looking at Sisu. With the humour that is constantly interjected into her character, it is evident that Disney wanted to recreate the likability and charisma of Mushu from Mulan (1998). However, Mushu was not a main character in Mulan and largely functioned as comedic relief, whereas Sisu at times seemed to act as Raya’s mentor figure.
Perhaps the writers wanted Sisu to have different characteristics during different points of the film depending on what the plot called for, but as a character, it is simply hard to believe that a magical dragon can be both formidable and gullible at the same time.
My immediate instinct is to believe that Disney put fur on Sisu for the sake of selling toys. Merchandise sales are a huge part of a movie’s success, especially for children’s movies. A good movie can sell toys, but good toys can’t sell a movie.
Critics of the movie have called out Disney’s preference to cast familiar A-list names even if it compromises on the film’s representation rather than opening up opportunities to those of Southeast Asian descent. Of the main cast members, only Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya, is of Southeast Asian descent. The rest of the main cast are all of East Asian descent. Some have argued however that roles for Asians can be hard to come by in Hollywood and therefore Asian actors take what they can get even if they are not fully representative of the role they are portraying.
Southeast Asia has produced several prominent actors who could have easily fit into some of the roles in this film. Just a few names that come to mind include To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before‘s Vietnamese star Lana Condor, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Filipino male lead Vincent Rodriguez III, and Crazy Rich Asians cast members including Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh who are both Malaysian.
For all its shortcomings, Raya and the Last Dragon has helped put Southeast Asia on the global stage. We can only hope that this is the beginning of more minority representation in media, and that Hollywood will continue to be held to a higher standard when it comes to accurate portrayals of other cultures. Southeast Asia has a rich and diverse culture that can be turned into colourful pieces of art if done right. In the years to come, perhaps more filmmakers will step forward to share the beauty of Southeast Asia with the rest of the world.
If you would like to hear more about films featuring Asian and Southeast Asian cultures and stories, and what it means for the cinema industry, Singapore Film Society is hosting their first ever Kopi & Movi Panel titled “Southeast Asia, Animated” on 27 March (Sat), 10am!
LASALLE animation lecturer and local film-maker Ang Qing Sheng will be moderating, and joining him on the panel are Raul Garcia, an ex-Disney animator and voting member of the Academy, and Dr John Miksic, a retired NUS professor of Southeast Asian cultural studies.
The panel is open and free for all. For more details and to RSVP, click here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1864560463720348/
Raya and the Last Dragon is now out in cinemas islandwide and on Disney+.
Image credit: Disney