Five Stars. I haven’t been this excited about Disney since Frozen (the first one) came out back in 2013. And I hope Raya and the Last Dragon goes the way of Frozen in terms of popularity. Before I gush on about why I love Raya, let me go over two minor factors I wished was different. Before you proceed: Spoiler Alerts!!
We all miss the Disney musical magic when it hits the right spot with songs. I can imagine how awesome it would be if it was a full blown musical with sounds of traditional Southeast Asian instruments such as gamelan, angklung, kendang (the list goes on because there is so many) mixed with the modern orchestrations of James Newton Howard.
Everyone that was altered by the Druun (a form of negative energy that turns living beings into stone) returned back to their original form in the end. Okay, so we probably saw this coming, being a Disney children movie and all that, but it’s cliché. Every one comes back to life? We know that’s not what happens in reality. I mean, so far not one person I know that has died has ever managed to come back to life, no matter how much I decide to trust other people…I guess once you have experienced death, your outlook on everything changes (read about my discussion on coping with grief). One might argue it’s a children movie, but children face death, grief, and loss just as much as adults do.
That’s it. Now moving on the the reasons why I cried buckets until my eyes were swollen afterwards.
Southeast Asian Culture
As an Indonesian, I know the richness of the culture in this area of the world. It’s one of the hotspots of cultural diversity, and I have always wondered when Disney would create something from Southeast Asia folklores. FINALLY, it does so with a bang in Raya and the Last Dragon. I loved all the little cultural details they depicted, like taking off shoes as a sign of respect, soup which looks like tom-yum (my favorite Thai soup), Tuk-Tuk (a term for a vehicle which is a cross between a motorcycle and a car), even the con baby. Yes, they use con babies here to beg money from you in the streets. It’s a sad but true sign of the large socio-economic disparity you can see everyday on our streets.
My favorite cultural detail was how they incorporated wordless gestures as a sign of respect. When Namaari passed the garden of the stone dragons in worshipful silence and showed the statues the circle hand gesture of respect – gorgeous.
There was no trope gender issues like in the recent Mulan. The females here were skilled, trained, and powerful. There were no problems that the Chief of Fang was a woman, nor that Raya was to be the next Chief of Heart after her father. Cute old Grandma was the meanest mafia boss Talon had ever seen, and of course, baby Noi steals the show!
Humor and Richness of Emotions
So much joyful humor, especially from the dragon Sisu as voiced by Awkwafina. The young entrepreneur (boatpreneur?) Boun was also a lovingly hilarious treat. His character shows the optimistic, youthful entrepreneurial spirit that exists all across Southeast Asia.
The emotional intensity of Raya and the Last Dragon lays in trust and betrayal of that trust. Everyone who has ever been betrayed or stabbed in the back will understand Raya’s internal struggle.
Sense of Wonder
What cemented this movie for me was Namaari’s love and sense of wonder for the dragons. That look on her face when she saw Sisu for the first time-I know that look. It’s the look on my face when I dive and see a mola-mola (the elusive sunfish) for the first time, or when a whaleshark suddenly appears in the deep blue.
Disney hit this on the nail. In the midst of brokenness, there is astonishing unexplainable beauty for those who still seek it.
Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!