My expectations going into the film…
Let me start by saying this – I’m a BIG Disney Geek and I have a huge love for all of the animated films and series the studio has produced over the years! When Disney announced their first ever Southeast Asian princess, I was more than just ecstatic – finally some much-needed Asian representation beyond China in Mulan! I watched and rewatched the trailers, in awe of the little details that paid homage to Southeast Asian cultures: from the clothing worn, the architecture, the hand gestures and the depiction of folklore to the martial arts and warrior movements, to even the smallest details in animating Raya’s beautiful, thick, long hair.
Like many fans, I also couldn’t help but notice the inevitable similarities of Raya to another one of my favourite animated shows – Avatar: the Last Airbender (ATLA) – which also centres itself around portraying Asian cultures. The outfit and hairstyle worn by Raya as a child (shown in the teaser trailer) resembled some of the garments typically worn by water benders, such as Katara and Korra, in the ATLA universe. The masked man (also shown in the teaser trailer) seemed to echo the ‘Blue Spirit’ mask worn by Zuko from ATLA. More importantly, the disunity between the tribes in Raya (each named after a part of the dragon) appeared to resemble the torn nations from ATLA (which are each named after an element).
Although Disney made clear that any parallels with ATLA were unintentional, Osnat Shurer, producer of Raya, puts it best:
“I only learned about Avatar later from some friends who loved it so much. And I started watching it, it was super cool. We spend a lot of time first in development, and then in production together, kind of digging into what is the story we want to tell and what are the inspirations, and I think that with an area that isn’t seen on the big screen internationally as much as its beauty warrants, parallels will be found very more quickly. Like the parallels are found between movies with female protagonists where you’re like, that’s just been done enough! And so we don’t shy away from the comparison because it’s beautiful series, but this was inspired from within, and of any parallels that are there are the kind that happen when both pay homage to such cool cultures.” 
Nonetheless, I was really excited by the potential prospect of Raya and the Last Airbender (oops! I mean Dragon) being the place of intersection where Disney meets ATLA and my two favourite animated stories somewhat collide. I guess I had a lot of expectations for this film and I couldn’t wait to see what Raya would bring to the Disney canon.
So, full of anticipation, I decided to buy Raya and the Last Dragon on Premiere access on my Disney Plus account and watch it on the first night of its release and I have to be completely honest with you when I say that…
Truthfully, I was actually a little disappointed by the film…
I SOOOO wanted to love it, but, unfortunately, it just didn’t live up to my expectations. And don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate it – but it certainly wasn’t one of the greatest Disney films of all time.
I liked some elements of the film and was of course blown away by the incredible animated scenes Disney have been known to produce. I was particularly impressed by their animation of nature as well as the dragon in this film. There were some really beautiful and breathtaking moments involving the movement of water – it’s definitely something that stood out to me when I watched the film.
But overall there was something a little lackluster about the whole film, in terms of the plot. The storyline and morals were heartwarming at best, but the mission felt too simplistic and easy to complete. While there were some great action sequences (if you’re into that) the film crucially lacked an emotional depth and complexity that is so intrinsic to the other films the studio has produced in the past. If it was made by any other animated studio this might have been forgiven, but it felt like there was something missing from the usual ‘Disney magic’, to say the least.
Over killed messages and simplified storyline
I think that the plague featured in the film, along with the messages of ‘unity’ and ‘trust’, were very relevant and topical to today’s testing times. But they weren’t very subtle about the meaning behind the film, like AT ALL. They used those two buzzwords, ‘unity’ and ‘trust, everywhere in order to get the message across. As a result, you didn’t have to dig too deep to understand what the film was really about. While I appreciate those two concepts are very important, after a while it felt a bit like overkill of the message. And I know what you’re thinking – it’s a kids film, it’s meant to be simple! But to that I say this: Disney films are meant to be emotionally rich and well-developed because yes, whilst they are predominantly made for kids, their films target a family audience and so they have to be appealing to an adult audience as well. I also don’t believe in dumbing things down for kids, because I feel like they are a lot smarter than we give them credit for.
In my opinion, Raya and the Last Dragon sacrificed complex storytelling in order to fit the key messages the producers and directors were trying to send their viewers, as opposed to weaving subtle and hidden gems within a carefully planned and compelling storyline, like they usually do in a Disney film.
Another thing which the film failed to achieve was a major plot twist, which they usually include. Think back to Big Hero 6 when we found out who the real villain was…or to Coco when Miguel’s true father was revealed…or even in their most popular and successful film, Frozen, where Hans spewed out his most devastating line: “If only there was someone out there who loved you”. I admit the whole hidden-villain trope was getting repetitive, but it was a formula that just seemed to work for Disney, because it gave the audience that shock factor. Raya and the Last Dragon lacked any plot twists or surprises – the whole thing was so predictable. In my opinion, that was the film’s biggest downfall.
I have to give them some credit for managing to produce anything during this pandemic and I applaud their use of remote work to create this entire film, but there was something about it that seemed a little bit rushed. It definitely had a lot of potential to get there, but it didn’t quite reach that high standard Disney is renowned for. After finishing the film, I felt incomplete and unsatisfied. It was as if I had watched a great part one of an adventure but not the whole thing. I feel like if they gave it more time perhaps they would have been able to create something better.
Bland and Mary-Sue-esc Protagonist
I also want to spend some time addressing the eponymous protagonist – Raya. I personally found Raya to be more interesting when she was a child – as she grew older, she wasn’t as exciting. The film didn’t manage to develop her well enough as a character and she didn’t really grow or learn anything as the film progressed, besides needing to trust others a little more, which wasn’t exactly a life-changing discovery or journey. For that reason, Raya seemed a little bland and Mary Sue-like in comparison to some of the other well-fleshed out princesses of the Disney franchise.
I’d like to compare Raya to Merida from Brave, because I feel like they have a similar personality type, yet Merida went through a far more complex story arc. Merida clearly had faults – she was stubborn, a tad reckless and very hot-headed, but she was also very lovable because of those exact qualities. She was inspirational, empowering and, well, BRAVE! Raya has these qualities too but they didn’t really focus on her weaknesses in the film. Her one bad trait was built on experience and validated by other characters and so it didn’t really feel like it belonged to her alone.
The plot of the film also begs to be likened to Moana because of the similar mission to embark on a long journey and restore a precious object. Yet Raya falls short in comparison because her object was restored too easily. Moana also went through extreme highs and lows of emotion throughout her journey and she emerged well-developed by the end of it. Going in, she was incredibly self-doubtful, naive and inexperienced, but by the end of the film she was transformed into someone who was more sure of herself and her life purpose. Raya’s journey of self-development, whilst achieving a similar thing, was far less complicated and natural but rather felt like a quick switch had been flipped inside of her. I think they focused more on quantity of characters than quality of characters in Raya and the Last Dragon, and that’s where the problem lies.
The film also lacked the same amount of humour and lighthearted moments that films like Mulan managed. There were no laugh out loud moments for me in this film. Look, I get not everyone can bring to the table what Eddie Murphy does, but this film was in need of some form of comic relief, especially in their main character. I think if they showed Raya as being more goofy and funny in some moments, and strong and powerful in others, that would have made her character more relatable and charming, whilst still maintaining that empowering vibe they were going for.
The pressure to be the BEST because it’s one of the ONLY Southeast Asian representations
I’m a big fan of Kelly Marie Tran and I could totally feel her fears when she said she was worried about voicing the first ever Southeast Asian princess. She said this:
“The pressure of it is very real as well. There’s this sort of idea that if this movie doesn’t do well, then it’s our only shot. And it’s like all of these sort of false narratives that I have in my head, and maybe false narratives that are perpetuated by an industry that, for so long, has been held in the power of one type of person. … When I think about all the people that I’m seeing work in this industry now that are continuing to open doors for people like them, God, that’s really inspiring.” 
I totally relate to the feeling of having to prove myself because this might be the only chance at representation that people of my culture/race/religion get. It’s totally frustrating and I just find it sad that there’s so much pressure to be an exceptional portrayal of the ONLY Southeast Asian princess, when we have so many European/White Disney princesses who are seen as the default. The thing is, I had a lot of hopes for Raya, but I want her to be interesting of her own accord, not just because she is Southeast Asian, you know? Anna and Elsa from Frozen are great characters not because of where they’re from but because of their individual personalities and traits! The same goes for other Disney princesses like Mulan, Merida, Moana etc. I want the same for Raya – to not just be a representation of her culture or race, but a whole and relatable individual in her own right!
In a film like this, I think it’s also a little difficult to group all Southeast Asian cultures into one representation. There are too many countries within that category (Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia etc.) that it would be difficult to do any one of them justice. I get they were trying to represent the diversity between them, whilst also signifying unity and balance, but I think they perhaps spread themselves too thin by trying to ambitiously represent all Southeast Asian cultures in one single film. I feel like it would have been better if they just picked one single location to focus on. It’s similar to what they did with Princess Jasmine – by making her a mismatch of cultures in attempts to somehow represent all of the Middle East as well as South Asia, they ended up producing a princess that represented none of those places correctly. While Raya is by no means as bad an Orientalist representation as Aladdin is, it’s in danger of falling into the same idea of over-generalising cultures.
I also think that great depictions of cultures in film are not enough if they are not tied beautifully to a fantastic storyline. While Raya and the Last Dragon was okay…it’s got nothing on ATLA. So if you’re looking to expand your viewing of Asian culture, I would recommend watching Avatar: the Last Airbender instead, because not only does it represent different Asian cultures that often don’t get much attention on screen, but it also creates a meaningful and complex plot around such cultures rather than just trying to fit it into the story any old how. Check out my complete review of Avatar: the Last Airbender here.
So is it worth buying Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney plus?
No, not really. You’re probably better off waiting for the film to become free on the streaming service in June.
I personally don’t think it’s worth spending £19.99 on it, but if you are in desperate need of a movie night then maybe consider it, because the Premiere access is cheaper (and safer) than going to the cinema. The plus is that you do get to keep it to watch as many times as you like, with the added perks of being able to pause, rewind and enjoy without the nuisance of people walking in front of the screen 30 mins into the film, talking loudly or using their phones in a dimly lit theater. So, if you really do want to see it for yourself, do consider that option.
If you want to watch some better and more underrated Disney films, check out my article here.