Raya and the Last Dragon

Well, that was very Disney. Then again, what should I expect?

For those who haven’t seen it, Raya and the Last Dragon is a sort of Disney Princess fairy tale animation. It is set in a county that is presumably somewhere in South-East Asia, and it features water dragons, which I am now fairly familiar with from Aliette de Bodard’s writing. The basic plot is about how humans have warred among themselves, which causes all sorts of evil to happen, and we have to learn to be friends with each other again. All of which is seen through the eyes of a young princess who befriends the only dragon left alive. It is exactly as soppy as you would expect.

I try to remember that these things are intended mostly for kids, and we should not expect any realpolitik in them.

The film is beautifully animated and a lot of fun along the way. I don’t expect anything less from Disney. But I have reservations.

Firstly the core dynamic of the plot is the rivalry between Raya and Princess Namaari of the Claw Tribe (who ride giant cats). Namaari has been brought up to believe that her people have been kept in poverty by the Heart Tribe, Raya’s people. It is the young Namaari who tricks Raya into betraying Heart secrets and causes the disaster at the start of the film, which Raya must put right. Before that can happen, Namaari must repent, and Raya must learn to trust her. All well and good, except that Namaari is given a very obvious lesbian haircut and is portrayed in a very Amazon warrior way, and this is entirely queer-baiting because it is a film for kids and nothing is going to happen between her and Raya. I am assuming that a lot of fan fic is getting written, but it would be nice if Disney did more than just hint.

My other concern is with the cast. It is headed by Kelly Marie Tran, which is wonderful. If ever there was an actress who deserves a starring role in a successful movie, she’s it. All of the rest of the cast are people of colour too. But they are also all American, and this is a cartoon. So although all of the characters that we see are non-white, they mostly have American accents. On the one hand, this is a great piece of representation by Disney. Asian Americans in particular will doubtless be pleased by that. But I found myself wondering whether people outside the USA (and maybe Canada) would see it as representation, or whether they’d assume that the actors were all white people. Because I did until I looked them up.

Obviously I’m not in a position to judge here. I’d welcome feedback from Asian friends.