The nature of trust and the importance of unity are at the centre of Disney’s first Southeast Asian-inspired animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the film takes inspiration from Southeast Asian cultures and traditions, while being a fun comedy-action, with an inspiring message at the center of its story. From the costumes and the music to the foods and the fighting choreography, Raya and the Last Dragon showcases the beauty and diversity of Southeast Asian cultures in the small details. Yet in spite of these admirable efforts, the movie isn’t exactly as progressive as it thinks it is, in terms of its Southeast Asian representation.

The story takes place in the fantasy land of Kumandra, where five separate clans (Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine, and Taila) are fighting against each other for power and self-preservation. Five hundred years before the main event of the movie happens, however, Kumandra is a land of peace, where people from different backgrounds are united together and live alongside mythical dragons. That is, until an evil plague known as Druun attacks Kumandra and turns all the dragons into stone except one – Sisu (Awkwafina), who manages to turn all her power into a magical gem that protects Kumandra from the Druun. But trust is already broken, and “people being people,” as the titular Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) utters in the opening of the movie, the five nations begin to betray one another.

It’s now up to Raya, who after being blindsided by a conniving young woman from Fang, Namaari (Chan) becomes a lone warrior, to save her father, Chief Benja (Kim), and the whole Kumandra from external doom. Her main goal? To collect all the separated dragon gem pieces and find Sisu, hoping she knows a way or two to reunite the broken gem pieces into one. But of course, her journey is not that simple — and it’s not just because the other nations want to stop her from retrieving the gem, but also because Raya herself has an internal struggle of trusting other people, which in the end becomes a big obstacle she must overcome if she wants her plan to work.

What’s interesting about this part is how the movie constantly challenges Raya to reexamine her worldviews about what trust is, mostly by placing an opposing perspective, symbolised by Sisu, directly in her journey. Whereas Raya believes that she can’t trust other people because the world is broken, Sisu, on the other hand, thinks that the reason why the world’s broken is because people don’t trust each other. The push-and-pull of these two opposing points-of-view eventually gives Raya and the Last Dragon more complexity. Instead of being overtly hopeful throughout and simply, heavy-handedly teaching both Raya and us, the audience, about the good value of trust, the film gives layers to its exploration of the nature of trust. We’re invited to understand why Raya is the way she is, while at the same time questioning it at the same time. The character work, in the end, is as interesting as the film’s more kickass adventure and action sequences.

Grounding everything is the talent behind the characters. Tran brings humanity and vulnerability to Raya, and Awkwafina gives humor and heart to both the movie and her character. The rapport between the two is where Raya and the Last Dragon finds most of its strength. Another winning element of the movie is in its representation of Southeast Asian cultures and traditions in detail. Take, for instance, the name Raya. In the Malaysian and Indonesian languages, Raya is mostly associated with celebration, particularly the celebration of Eid Al Fitr, where families usually gather together to celebrate the holy day by forgiving each other’s mistakes and eating meals together — which fits in perfectly with what the movie is trying to explore.

The five lands of Kumandra are also heavily influenced by countries in Southeast Asia. Tallon does not just sound like Thailand, it’s also designed to feel like a combination of Thailand and Vietnam’s floating market. The building design of Fang looks a lot like Rumah Gadang, which is one of the traditional houses in Indonesia. Then there’s the fighting scene, which takes reference from both Muay Thai and silat, two martial arts originated respectively in Thailand and Indonesia. Even to small features like the foods, the SEA references feel rich.

When you take a look at this on the outside, the way Raya and the Last Dragon handles the SEA cultures it wants to represent seems almost perfect. But unfortunately, that’s not the case. The first and most visible issue with the movie lies in its casting choice. While it sure does boast some talents of Southeast Asian descent in Tran, Patty Handerson who is Vietnamese, Ross Butler who has Chinese-Malaysian and Singaporean blood, and some other names, most of the main cast of Raya and the Last Dragon consists of East Asian big names, probably to attract the global audience. Sure, they’re talented and they ace the roles, but when a movie props itself to push representation of Southeast Asian cultures, it seems lazy at best, and irresponsible at worst to not cast actors of Southeast Asian descent.

The most disappointing part of the movie, however, lies in how it portrays the SEA cultures and traditions themselves. In reality, Southeast Asia consists of eleven countries, each with rich and diverse cultures, yet in the movie, these cultures are handled as some kind of melting pot as if they are interchangeable. Yes, in Southeast Asia some parts of one country’s culture and traditions are influenced by those of another country; we can see this case with Malaysia and Indonesia, for example. But it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. These major flaws are what eventually becomes the reason why even though Raya and the Last Dragon has all the formula to be a winning Disney movie, it falls short in its most vital aspect. If only the writers knew how to treat the movie’s representation of SEA cultures more deliberately, no doubt Raya and the Last Dragon would be the progressive movie it thinks it is. Still, if you want some badass action-comedy animation with a hopeful message, Raya and the Last Dragon will do it for you.

Rating: ★★★½

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available from March 5 2021 on Disney+ as a premium rental.

Interview with Co-Writer of Raya and the Last Dragon – Adele Lim – Click Here