By Reza Mardian
Disney’s latest sensation, “Raya and The Last Dragon,” hit theaters in March, and people can’t stop raving about the film. It remains at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes with more than 250 reviews while praising the studio’s attempt to portray its Southeast Asian representation. It is easy to predict that it will be a strong contender for next year’s awards season for Best Animated Feature.
Yet, as a Southeast Asian descent myself, I feel there are some perspectives worth discussing before deciding whether or not “Raya and The Last Dragon” should continue to receive such praise, particularly on how Disney will push the marketing campaign in the future: representation.
On “Raya and The Last Dragon’s” Theme
Representing one country, ethnicity, race, or gender is more common by contextualizing its real stories, but “Raya and The Last Dragon” does not do any of that. The film is set in Kumandra, a fictionalized region that is heavily inspired by Southeast Asia regions. We could see how the story captures the name ‘Raya,’ which literally means ‘big’ in Malay and Indonesian. We see how the food, production design, set decoration, setting, and costume choices are inspired by Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, and many other countries. Raya’s weapon is inspired by an Indonesian traditional mythical weapon known as Keris. But that’s all it is: visual depiction. That’s the only representation the studio attempts to showcase, and it’s far from enough.
Why is it not enough, you might ask? Capturing one region consisting of ten countries with hundreds of cultural diversities is almost impossible. Disney (or any other studio) never represented the European Union or North America due to its geopolitical context. The closest attempt the studio has made was when “Black Panther” (2018) countered the notion of “what if a fictionalized country in Africa was secretly rich?” While it’s fictionalized, the themes explored there are empowering.
Let’s take the theme upheld in “Raya and The Last Dragon.” The conflict centers on five tribes in Kumandra hating each other. Due to their personal interest, they created a conflict where it disrupts the balance in Kumandra. To restore the balance, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has to find Sisu the Last Dragon (Awkafina). The rest of the movie tries to answer if all the five tribes could become one again. How would this theme represent Southeast Asia?
Unlike “Black Panther,” which elevated one region’s capacity, this film perceives South East Asia as a conflicted region. The irony is that we’re known as one of the most harmonious and friendliest regions. Bali sure remains popular as a tourist site. The only conflict that probably exists is how our culture is sometimes similar to one another and that we have to make international bodies such as UNICEF claim whose heritage belongs to what country.
If the writers attempt to explore that conflict, then their symbolisms are also not adequate. For a tribe that’s supposed to be diverse (as seen from their costumes and their hometown’s landscape), each of them has too much similarity both in dialect and interest in their cultural artifact: the dragon crystal fought over. So when the film is screened, I found it difficult to see my identity represented on screen. It’s easier to see the gender expectation explored in “Mulan” and the life of voyagers in “Moana,” although they were not the representation of my country or region.
The relatability of a story hugely depends on the premise and the theme of the movie, and how the characters are portrayed. And this doesn’t help “Raya and The Last Dragon” as well.
On “Raya and The Last Dragon’s” Characters
What Disney did well was capturing how women could counter the stereotype to lead and protect their tribes. I think this is what Disney has been doing to show that their princesses are no longer damsels in distress.
Since 2009, Disney Princesses have been consistently captured as strong women. Tiana in “The Princess and The Frog” is a hard worker, Rapunzel in “Tangled” can heal and do so much with her hair, Merida in “Brave” could shoot, Elsa in “Frozen” could freeze, and Moana can control the ocean. Raya is not only strong, but she’s also an incredible martial artist.
But when we contextualize its characters to Southeast Asian culture, this too becomes problematic. Just like in Eastern Asia, Southeast Asian women undergo domestic expectations. It is hard for me to believe that it’s that easy for Raya to master martial arts when it’s perceived as a more masculine sport. It’s more believable for me to see how women are portrayed in “Mulan” both in the animated and the live-action version than here.
The process of acquiring such skills is often criticized as not feminine enough. Even though “Mulan” is a natural warrior in the latest live-adaptation, her society condemns such behavior, believing that women should marry and manage the household. It is a gender stereotype that should not be perpetuated, but it must be addressed. The absence of this struggle would lower the character’s struggle.
How would this affect the award race next year? Disney could push this like how they pushed “Moana” in 2016 and “The Princess and The Frog” in 2009. And I hate to see the film nominated (or even win) under the basis of representation without fully representing the right themes. Had Disney not pushed the marketing campaign as Southeast Asian representation, I might have enjoyed the film more. They should definitely change the narrative if they want to be awarded by merit because “Raya and The Last Dragon” is still a good film and deserves to be appreciated, but not with the wrong narrative. The writer is Indonesian, and he’s been campaigning for Indonesia’s official submission for the Oscars since 2018. He also writes for The Jakarta Post and Magdalene in English.
You can follow Reza and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @rezamardian13