Is Raya and the Last Dragon’s fantasy world flawed?

Raya and the Last Dragon may seem like a big step in terms of representation, but the surface of the film doesn't tell the whole story

Jonathan Lee
1st March 2022
Image credit: IMDB
Recently, YouTuber Xiran Jay Zhao released a two-part video in which many South-East Asian artists, rather mercilessly, roasted the film Raya and the Last Dragon for hours. They pointed out how the film meshes the diverse cultures of an entire region into a superficial, unrecognisable mess.

As a Malaysian myself, I recalled my initial reaction upon finishing the film: a mixed filling of representation and emptiness. The sentiment in the region was also clear that many had problems with this “Southeast Asian-inspired” movie. Upon watching parts of the video released by Xiran, I too was inspired to pen down my thoughts on the Disney animation.

For the uninitiated, Raya and the Last Dragon is an animated fantasy adventure film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Helmed as Disney’s first animation movie to be inspired by the region, the story follows a warrior princess who sought the fabled last dragon in hopes of bringing back her father and banishing evil spirits from her land.

The film also draws on uninspired pan-Asian cultural iconographies such as rice, curry, and dragons, that while common across Southeast Asian cultures, ultimately lack cultural specificity.

The film is not without its merits. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of our cultural beliefs and folklore, a noteworthy mention being the design of the last dragon whose design is heavily based on naga, a mythological creature believed to be guardians of the unknown. Minute details such as eating with hands and removing shoes before entering a house also provided a fuzzy sense of familiarity. 

The film also prides itself on its visual details, such as the architecture, the landscape, the food, the weaponry, the costumes and the colours. Credit where credit’s due, the animation was visually stunning and detailed. The movie’s prologue which featured wayang kulit (traditional form of puppet-shadow play originating from Indonesia) had impeccable art style. People, animals, clothing, items, architecture, and even the changing natural environments were vividly coloured throughout the movie.

Unfortunately, this is where the film begins to falter in its representation aspect. While I loved seeing durian (aka the stinky fruit), beef rendang (beef stew with spices) and kris (a Malay or Indonesian dagger) on the screen, I can’t help but feel they were reduced to mere superficial Easter eggs, serving as obligatory pieces in a Southeast Asian-inspired movie. Don’t get me started on the treatment of the kris either, for what is a sacred dagger was turned into an anime-esque whip sword, detaching it from its cultural connections. 

Image credit: IMDB

Another issue with the portrayal of Southeast Asians is the lack of diversity within each tribe. While there are undeniably underlying similarities among each country in the region, they each have a culture and sense of identity that is very distinct from one another. The film also draws on uninspired pan-Asian cultural iconographies such as rice, curry, and dragons, that while common across Southeast Asian cultures, ultimately lack cultural specificity. The end result was a piece that felt disingenuous; a sense of inability to tell different cultures apart and desperately throwing them all into a mixer.

The problem with Raya was, as most of Xiran’s guests pointed out, was that Disney marketed it as a “movie for Southeast Asian representation”, implying that they knew about the culture as much as we do ourselves. I do not think that this uproar would have happened if they didn’t oversell that idea. Unfortunately, scarce representation brings about heavy expectations, and this film happened to not meet them.

In conclusion, Raya and the Last Dragon is a film that leaves much to be desired in the age where Hollywood is pursuing multicultural representation, and a stark reminder that it takes more than including a region’s name to resonate with the community it represents. 

Video credit: Walt Disney Animation Studio
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