The Flawed Fantasy World of Raya and the Last Dragon

Disney’s new film is the latest to draw on the real world to create a fictional land. But well-intentioned details can carry a story only so far.

‘Raya and the Last Dragon’
Disney

Fantasy worlds that mirror real-life cultures have a long history in storytelling. Middle-earth, the Four Lands, Narnia, Westeros, Earthsea: These are fictional places populated by imaginary creatures and characters, but with politics, faiths, and cultural dynamics that resemble our own. They give their creators license to world-build with allegories for contemporary issues, but without worrying too much about fidelity to reality. For Disney’s animated films, such fantasy lands—Wonderland, Neverland, even Atlantis—are part of the studio's cinematic legacy. But when depicting non-Western cultures, Disney has sometimes flattened the various cultures of a region into one stereotype-heavy location. Agrabah, in the animated Aladdin, was a visual mishmash of Middle Eastern cultures, and was originally described in song as “barbaric / But hey, it’s home.” The characterization was more reductive and offensive than blessed by Disney magic.

Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s first animated film to star a Southeast Asian heroine, attempts to be more culturally accurate than any Disney project before it. Like the team behind Moana, which was inspired by Polynesian cultures, Raya’s filmmakers created a “story trust” of Southeast Asian historians and anthropologists working as consultants to ensure the film’s authenticity. They also recruited the Vietnamese American writer Qui Nguyen and the Chinese Malaysian writer Adele Lim for the script, as well as the Thai artist Fawn Veerasunthorn as their head of story. The directors, Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, trekked through Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, and Malaysia to gather material that would help them sculpt Kumandra, the fantasy world that serves as Raya’s setting.

And Kumandra is incredibly detailed. The characters wear draped sabai tops and sampot pants, and wield kris-inspired swords and arnis sticks. The martial-arts choreography incorporates moves from fighting styles such as muay thai and krabi-krabong. There are shots of durian and dragon fruit and the Vietnamese rice cake bánh tét. The fictional kingdom Fang draws on geometric architecture from Indonesia, while Talon is made up of floating markets reminiscent of those in Thailand. The titular last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), is modeled after naga, serpent-like creatures from Southeast Asian folklore. These elements fill every inch of the screen, making Raya an eye-popping, vibrant spectacle. That was the point, Nguyen explained in an interview: “It was like a bunch of Easter eggs culturally for all of us to be able to go, ‘Hey, you find your culture in this movie.’”

But culture isn’t a collection of Easter eggs. For all its dazzling details, Raya’s world-building comes at the expense of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) herself.

Raya even spends the opening minutes of the film running down the extensive backstory of Kumandra: The land once existed as a unified region where humans lived alongside dragons, until purple smoke monsters called Druuns, which turn living beings to stone, showed up. The dragons saved the humans, but in the process sacrificed themselves to the Druuns. The humans, left on their own, began fighting one another, splitting Kumandra up into five kingdoms, each named after parts of a dragon: Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail. Given their different climates and values, each one developed a distinct lifestyle, refusing to reunify as one Kumandra. Raya embarks on a quest to stitch together the kingdoms, collects a motley crew of wayward Kumandrans, and forms a found family that teaches her that trust is key to unity.

As gorgeous as Kumandra may be, Raya’s story feels empty and irrelevant compared with the world around her. She acts like a tourist, hopscotching from kingdom to kingdom in search of pieces of a dragon gem to stop the Druuns, which transformed her father, the chief of the Heart kingdom. Sure, she engages with people from the kingdoms, but they mostly provide comic relief, rather than act as fully formed characters—one of them is a baby who can only babble and produce slapstick gags. In the desert land of Tail, Raya grabs the gem piece from the skeleton of the kingdom’s chief. Raya is a quick-witted adventurer, but her character scantly reflects the filmmakers’ sweeping cultural research; Disney’s attention to authenticity becomes little more than window dressing.

Better fantasy worlds make their cultural specificity essential to the hero’s journey. In Black Panther, Wakanda represents Black excellence, and thus serves T’Challa’s arc, as a man trying to earn his position as a ruler. The world of Avatar: The Last Airbender is based on Asia, and that’s woven into the narrative of its protagonist, the monk Aang. His plot incorporates Buddhist rituals and themes of harmony; he travels to four kingdoms not to pick up souvenirs, but to learn from each nation’s philosophies and lifestyles. The world of Moana draws on Polynesian cultures, in particular the tradition of wayfinding, which is pivotal to the lead character’s story. She sails across the ocean to protect her home island and connect her people to their heritage as voyagers.

In Raya, the world doesn’t so much serve the story; the story twists itself in knots trying to serve the world. This muddies the film’s message. With so little attention paid to the people of Kumandra’s kingdoms, anyone outside of Raya’s home world of Heart—including the thinly drawn ambassador of each kingdom—is defined by disunity, greed, and mistrust. Raya’s attempt to re-form Kumandra comes off less as a pursuit of unity, and more as her own attempt to flatten five disparate cultures into one.

The composite fantasy world as a storytelling device has evolved. It’s heartening to see animation move past the crude cultural appropriation of Aladdin’s Agrabah or the beyond-loose interpretation of the Incan empire in The Emperor’s New Groove, and to have a fantasy world that does not treat people of color as the exception. But the spectacle of a fantasy world can do only so much; a beautiful setting can’t compensate for a superficial story line. Raya loses sight of its heroine’s own connection to the cultures that the filmmakers had put so much care into depicting authentically. As the Vietnamese American writer Hoai-Tran Bui pointed out in her review, “Seeing a familiar dish and hearing a familiar word doesn’t have quite the [same] effect as recognizing a family dynamic onscreen.”

Raya, as the sole Southeast Asian Disney title, will become the de facto Southeast Asian narrative for Disney’s entire fairy-dusted dominion. Already there are Raya dolls, Sisu plushies, Kumandra-related toys; maybe later there’ll be a sequel or series, like the recently announced one for Moana. Why the filmmakers would want so badly to get it all right, down to the last frame, is understandable. But aesthetic accuracy has its limits. Raya and the Last Dragon is, in the end, named after Raya, not Kumandra. If the intention is to truly, fully depict a culture, then the people represent it better than any architectural style, costume choice, or fruit ever could. Ignore them, and the result is something like the dragons consumed by the Druuns: eye-catching but ultimately lifeless.