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“Raya and The Last Dragon” is Wonderful—Its Depiction of Southeast Asian Culture is Less Than Perfect

Disney's latest movie views Asia through a mono lens

Is Raya and The Last Dragon is one of the great modern children’s animation movies? I am unqualified to say so given my casual interest in the genre, but does that matter? Not in the moments when it brought me close to tears, something very few films do. I get that it’s formulaic. Who cares? I can’t imagine the movie’s young target audience does and for sure I don’t. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a new Disney project so hitting those familiar beats didn’t bother me. In fact, the comfy outline reminded me that I grew up during one of the studio’s greatest eras. Raya and The Last Dragon features computer animation but feels a lot closer to those lovingly drawn movies of the 1990s than modern Pixar films, of which I’m almost alone in being fairly indifferent to. All that’s missing is the musical numbers.

The movie stars Vietnamese-American Kelly Marie Tran, who many of you will have last seen being underused in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s deeply suspected that Tran’s role in the movie was minimized after the racist backlash against her prominent performance in The Last Jedi (something co-writer Chris Terrio denied, suspiciously leaning on a couple of different excuses). Tran wrote powerfully about the corrosive effect of the harassment for The New York Times. If nothing else, I hope Raya and The Last Dragon, her first major leading role in a movie since, is another giant stride in leaving all that horror behind and towards a scintillating future.

Raya traverses a divided world once known as Kumandra. Civilization has split into rival factions, a result of a great happening that saw the population’s protectors, the dragons, sacrifice themselves to repel a plague known as the Druun. This curse passes over the land as sentient purple clouds, turning anyone it comes into contact with to stone. For centuries following the dragons’ demise, the Druun was repressed by a jewel containing their energy—that is, until the duelling tribes inadvertently smashed it into five pieces, each keeping a shard for themselves.

Re-enter the dragon Sisu, a legend in local folklore for her role in driving back the Druun. Raya resurrects the beast in the hope she can banish the plague once more and restore unity to Kumandra. There’s a hitch: Sisu (voiced by rapper Awkwafina) is not anything like the powerful and majestic creature from myth, but rather a warmhearted klutz, more Hasbro toy than Drogon, entirely unsuited for the task of saving the world. I’ve seen Sisu compared to the Genie from Aladdin. Though she broadly fills a similar role—that is, an ostensibly powerful being who unexpectedly provides comic relief adjacent to the protagonist—Sisu doesn’t lean on pop culture references or funny voices. Awkwafina finds the perfect pocket of being sweet-natured, insecure, and a bit nuts.

Working from a script penned by Malaysian-American Adele Lim and Vietnamese-American Qui Nguyen, Raya and The Last Dragon is about people being better off united than in conflict, an easy enough concept for kids to grapple with, and the tangible human emotions that define the character’s relationships with one another are very touching—Raya simultaneously mourns her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) while feeling guilty for his demise; Sisu senses the good in Raya’s rival Namaari (Gemma Chan) that she herself cannot see. Yet the inter-universe politicking and themes of diplomacy also feel genuine. This is made possible because there’s a vastness to the world that directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada have created, from the majestic sweep of the rivers and countryside, to the bustling energy of the pokey markets. And sorry to view everything through a Covid lens, but the concept of normality suddenly being snatched away feels poignant.

So far, so good. But I am here to critique the movie’s depiction of Southeast Asian culture. (I was, in fact, urged to by Jes Vũ, a self-proclaimed Asian-American pop culture nerd, concerned that not enough writers with links to the region were covering it. Thank you for the suggestion Jes.) In that respect, Raya and The Last Dragon leaves me with mixed feelings. Kumandra is, of course, not real. To create this world, the filmmakers created a patchwork quilt of imagery inspired by old-timey Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Singapore, Laos, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, visiting several locations to help inspire them. This research was not wasted: the architecture, environment, food, certain language, and styling is region accurate. And the character modelling, to put it simply, looks right—I always back myself to recognise a person with indigenous Vietnamese roots on the street. Not too long ago I wrote about the power in seeing a broad representation of Asians on screen and I’d be happy to show this to one of my little cousins to ensure they’re seeing healthy representation of their own people.

Ah, but the voice cast, I hear you say—the most controversial aspect of the movie as, Tran aside, it is predominantly made up actors of East Asian heritage.

Not long ago, just getting the continent right would have seemed strange. The creative team behind Kingdom of the Sun—the unmade Disney epic that eventually became The Emperor’s New Groove—didn’t flinch in casting Owen Wilson and David Spade, two of the whitest voices imaginable, as Incas. Backlash against this practice has accelerated in recent years, powered by Indian-American Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement in Hollywood discourse. For a while it seemed like every white person who voiced a person of color was abandoning the roles with an apology—most recently there’s been the news that Kevin Michael Richardson, a Black man, will replace Harry Shearer as Dr Hibbert on The Simpsons. My opinion on this is that as long as Hollywood fails to offer actors of color equal opportunity when it comes to live action parts, then white stars should not being taking voice roles away from them. However, the great step down of actors already cast in these parts was very silly and, in fact, trivialized what racial justice activists are trying to achieve. If Bojack Horseman ever comes back, Alison Brie should be Diane Nguyen.

Here’s the thing though: if you actively make the decision to cast region-specific actors, then do it properly. The filmmakers clearly had notions to do so, hence them at least targeting the right continent, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Yet Raya and The Last Dragon is a reminder that that Hollywood looks at the Asian experience through an American lens, and to Americans not inside those communities, Asian culture—particularly that of Southeast and East Asia—is largely the same. Choose your own comparison: It would be like casting Andrew Dice Clay and Marissa Tomei in a movie set in a proxy for Ireland. Ironically, this mindset would have been less obvious if a couple of token white actors had been thrown into the mix.

In fact, the very presence of dragons in this movie is confusing to me. Dragons do appear in Vietnamese folklore, but not in a particularly notable way considering how omnipresent they are all over the globe, from ancient Mesopotamia art, the Wyvern of European literature, all the way through to Tolkien, Harry Potter, and A Song of Ice and Fire. In Asia, dragons are most prominent in—and typically associated with—China. Though many other Asians, myself included, do see the creature as a symbol of Asian heritage (it brought me closer to Sisqo), I find it strange that the screenwriters used the myth as their starting point. It’s indicative that we can be guilty of viewing ourselves through a kind of mono-Asian lens too. I guess that’s natural when you share common challenges and goals. After all, I cheer on all Asians in Hollywood trying to break the bamboo ceiling as if they were my own brethren, Vietnamese or no.

I am perhaps being excessively scrupulous. I loved Raya and The Last Dragon as a piece of cinema and its production is undeniably a positive thing. But the movie also serves as a reminder that Hollywood’s evolution towards better diversity isn’t simply about the number of roles it makes available for minority communities. The industry also has a responsibility to treat lesser-seen cultures with nuance and respect.