Why I'm Obsessed with Raya and the Last Dragon
I watched Disney's newest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, last Friday.
And then I've been listening to the soundtrack over and over again because you "can't" just re-watch the same movie every day.
But a part of me wants to imprint Raya and the Last Dragon upon my memory the way Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Frozen are. I want this movie to become a part of my psyche, to inform the way I think about how stories can be told. And what they can be told about.
So to convince you to let Raya and the Last Dragon to imprint on you as well, here are my 10 Reasons I'm Obsessed with RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (click-bait style!):
1 - An Ensemble Band of Outcasts
In my opinion, stories where people of different skill-sets come together for a common purpose are the best stories. If you like The Lord of the Rings, Six of Crows, or The Magnificent Seven, then you'll love Raya and the Last Dragon.
2 - HEIST(S)!!!!!
If you like Oceans 11, The Lies of Locke Lamora, The Six of Crows, or any other story where stealing things plays a key factor, then you will love this movie.
3 - TWO SOUTH-ASIAN PRINCESSES
Look at how amazing these two are! *le sigh* What I love about these princesses in particular is that they are both POWERFUL, STRONG young women with a firm grasp of their place in the world. Though they struggle to do the right thing within their respective roles, ultimately they remain true leaders and are confident in who they are. Raya's struggle to trust others and Namaari's struggle to protect her people are both compelling and relatable conflicts which make the interplay between these two characters so fascinating.
They also look cool as hell.
4 - Also, Namaari--HAVE YOU SEEN NAMAARI?!?! <3
Namaari, as a reigning princess (as opposed to Raya's banished-princess look), is brimming with power and style. She has gorgeous gold hair decorations, a gold cuff earring with a tassel so long that it rests on her shoulder, and gold arm bands which accentuate her powerful shoulder muscles. She is the epitome of a powerful warrior and feminine beauty combined. I love her. Her outfit is also functional and beautiful, and I want to know how to make her shirt.
On more of a character level, Namaari is an incredibly compelling antagonist. There is a reason for Raya to distrust her, but we can also imagine that Namaari holds a lot of guilt over that as well. When we first meet Namaari as an adult (probably 18, I'm guessing?), she says to Raya, "Until a few months ago, I thought you were stone." For six YEARS, this girl thought she had left an old friend to die. I like to imagine that suffering informed a lot of the no-nonsense, angry Namaari that we see at the beginning of the film.
Ironically, it is only during her fights with Raya that we see Namaari start to open up and act more like a real person. One of my favorite moments is during a fight when Namaari LITERALLY TAKES RAYA'S SWORD OUT OF HER HAND and then THROWS IT AWAY. Her shrug of the shoulders when she says she doesn't need it is matched in badassery only by the devastating power she then exhibits with her Muay Thai-style of hand-to-hand combat.
5 - Friendship! (Or Romance-Ship!)
The great thing about having two princesses in a story is that you get to have PRINCESS FRIENDSHIPS. It is super rare in Disney animated features for there to be two female main characters. Frozen was one, and Raya and the Last Dragon is another. While Frozen (thankfully) shifted their Elsa-as-villain storyline with the creation of "Let It Go," one of the central questions of Raya and the Last Dragon is whether or not Namaari is a villain. She is certainly the antagonist to Raya's goals throughout the film, but we also get a look into her more private moments, like when she honors the fallen dragons or when she grins at something Raya said that a real villain wouldn't find funny. There is a strong connection between Raya and Namaari, both from their past experiences and their roles as princesses with responsibilities to their people. They are put at odds, but the film makes it clear from the beginning that, in a better world, they would have been friends.
While I prefer stories that leave a friendship open to shift into romance or romance to shift into commitment after the story ends (think Pacific Rim, Crooked Kingdom, Rule of Wolves, Uprooted), unfortunately this movie does not exist in a vacuum. There are clear story beats in the relationship between Raya and Namaari which would make them obvious love interests if one of them were a man, but since we live in a country that likes to plaster rainbows on things one month a year but not actually develop beautiful gay love stories, the relationship between the two princesses never overtly shifts towards the romantic. As the storyline stands, I think it would have been too quick for these characters to go to that place by the end of the movie, but I can think of some very simple changes at the end that would have allowed that overt gay representation.
As it stands, Raya and Namaari's relationship either is a great representation of female friendship (YAY!) or a romantic portrayal of the first half of the enemies-turned-lovers storyline (expect a LOT of fanfiction continuing this arch, folks!).
6 - Sexy Enemy Banter (aka, Have You SEEN NAMAARI Part II)
Okay, I said they were friends, but they are also enemies. There are THREE fight scenes between Raya and Namaari, and each is progressively more intense. I loved every moment of their rivalry, as it provided TONS of great character interaction and enemy-banter. There is nothing more fun in a Disney movie than watching the protagonist and antagonist duke it out with their words. Think of the great villains: Ursula, Scar, Gaston. Their dialogue is some of the best in their movies. So when Namaari shows up and says she's glad Raya found a new friend because, "I was afraid you'd turn into a crazy cat lady... like me" while her huge, dangerous cat-mount growls menacingly, it is grin-inducing.
To top that off, Raya is at her BEST when she's bantering with Namaari. She's teasing and sarcastic and oh-so-fun to watch, casually asking Namaari in the middle of a fight: "You didn't happen to bring Fang's gem, did you?" Even when Namaari is kicking her butt, Raya just pushes herself back up, wipes her mouth, and says, "Oh well, I'll just swing by and pick it up later." BADASS!
7 - Dragons!!!! (Benevolent, Eastern-style, Water-Dragons <3)
DRAGONS DRAGONS DRAGONS DRAGONS DRAGONS!!!! And this time, they're actually based on South Asian water spirits called Naga. If you've ever talked to me about books before, you know I love dragons of all kinds. For me, there's nothing more satisfying than seeing a new take on the dragon myth. The Naga-inspired dragons of Raya and the Last Dragon are especially beautiful and make me want to tell everyone to read more books about this style of dragon! So, after you watch this movie, check out these books which take you out of the West to see more of this incredible type of dragon:
The True Queen by Zen Cho
The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
8 - Southeast-Asian Inspired Fantasy - OMG GORGEOUS
It's gorgeous. I don't think it reaches Wakandan level of diverse representation of different styles, fabrics, weapons, etc., but it's definitely reaching FOR it. I can only speak as someone who grew up surrounded by the media-mirror of whiteness and white culture, and as that person, I am SO happy to see a fantasy film which does not look anything like that. Whiteness is not automatically beautiful. Western cultures are not inherently better. Rather, the European version of fantasy has oversaturated our perception of what is "magical" and what is "fantastical" to such an extent that I think when we see something like Raya and the Last Dragon, we have to remind ourselves that this is ALSO fantasy. This is ALSO an imaginary world. It's just not the European-style magical world. And for that, I am grateful. And I hope we will just continue to see more and more diverse magical worlds.
For other non-European magical worlds, check these out:
A Song of Wraiths and Ruin by Roseanne A. Brown
Nocturna by Maya Motayne
Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim
Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa
Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
9 - The Beginning - AKA: Are Prologues Making a Comeback?
I just re-watched all The Lord of the Rings (Extended Edition) films (Yes--I am a huge nerd, why do you ask?) and was struck by how important the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring was to the rest of the films. At no point did the movies need to insert clunky dialogue saying, "As you know, Bob/Aragorn, your ancestor stopped Sauron but he didn't throw out the ring, which was extremely powerful and is probably going to cause problems for us later!" Instead, we get a relatively short prologue explaining everything we need to know about the world, its history, and the ring before we can dive into the story. By the time we arrive in Hobbiton, we are well-centered in the middle of a vast storyline.
The same happens with Raya and the Last Dragon. It begins with a shot of modern-day Raya, out in the desert like a lone ranger in a Spaghetti Western. She comments on this, which I think is meant to be a wink at the adult viewers and an introduction to the trope for the youngsters. Then we have one prologue in paper-theater style which explains the world, the dragons, and the dragon gem. Awesome! Now, as with The Lord of the Rings, we are ready for our story to begin.
But THEN, there is a SECOND prologue!! And this one is longer. Counting generally, the second prologue is 7 scenes long. That is HUGE in movie-time. By the time it ends and we return to lone-ranger Raya in the future, we have almost forgotten where we started. And... I think that's kind of brilliant.
We "begin" our story knowing exactly who Raya is, what she wants, and what the stakes are. Everything has been set up for us to just settle in and enjoy this movie in a beautiful world with fun characters and exciting plot points. The prologues allow for the storyline to be so much more vast and complex. We're not just dealing with the question of "Will the princess see her floating lights or be taken back to the tower?" or "Will the princess convince the prince to kiss her before her time runs out and she dies?" or "Will the princess sail away from her island to return the heart of Te Fiti?" Obviously I'm being reductive, but it is interesting that almost every other Disney princess film has to do with the protagonist's personal goals. "Will she find X?" seems to be a particularly popular theme, and Raya starts out on the same path. She tells us she's a lone ranger, that she needs to find something, and she has a personal reason for doing it. BUT THEN, the very first scene in the film following the prologue, Raya finds the Last Dragon.
This story isn't about a single character finding something for her personal story arch. It is about something so much greater: bringing together many people from many lands, learning to trust, and learning to forgive oneself and try to do better. And these themes are achieved SOLELY through the use of the long, two-part prologues. Because the story could have been the second prologue. It could have been: "Raya needs to find the last dragon and she runs into lots of trouble on the way to doing it, and then she finds the dragon and the dragon saves the day." But by shifting that story into a prologue and then skipping over it with a time-jump, the storyline becomes about something much greater. At every point, the story rejects Raya's perception of what her story is about and replaces it with a call to greatness. Raya is asked to set aside being a lone ranger and to trust. She is asked to let go of her personal pain and forgive. She is asked to reject an individualistic pursuit of X in favor of creating an entirely new paradigm in her world. So.... Should prologues maybe make a comeback?
10 - The Climactic Moment
Sorry... I can't.... Still sobbing!!
GO WATCH THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW!!! Enjoy it, get inspired, write Rayamaari fanfiction. :P