The land of Kumandra—the fictional setting for Disney’s latest big animated movie, Raya and the Last Dragon—represents a paradise lost. Once peaceful and abundant, it’s now a world beset by dissension, where envy drives sociopolitical negotiations and distrust reigns supreme. Every negative event is an opportunity for one faction to impute guilt to another, and no one seems able to come together, even for the purpose of furthering their own self-interests.
If it weren’t for those magical dragons, it would in many ways resemble our own world these days.
Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) believes there is another way to live. He tries to teach his daughter, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), to pursue common ground. At the outset of the story, he invites the monarchs of the other four lands to a peace summit. “If we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again,” he tells his daughter, “it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart.”
But trust is hard-won and easily squandered. When Raya and another princess battle over—and break—the sacred dragon gem believed to grant prosperity, they unleash the Druun, a sort of negative energy born of human discord that turns all life it encounters to ash and stone, including Raya’s father. Flash forward six years and Raya embarks on a quest to reunite the broken pieces of the dragon gem and awaken the last magical dragon, Sisu, to restore Kumandra.
The five lands of Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine, and Tail, named for different parts of the dragon, are gorgeously rendered. Inspired by several Southeast Asian countries, each has a distinct sense of culture and atmosphere. Also refreshing—for once we get a Disney princess who needs to learn more from her parent than the other way around. Raya can’t complete her quest until she learns to believe in herself a little less and others a little more. And while the warrior princess theme has certainly been overdone in recent years, in this case, it doesn’t feel as girl-power-centric as it has in the past.
Less appealing for Christian parents will be depictions of dragon worship. This goes beyond simply faithfully depicting a different culture, as we saw in Mulan. At one point Raya falls to her knees and prays to Sisu. She also performs religious rituals, bowing down to the gem that represents the spirit of the dragons. However, some concern over this is mitigated once we actually meet the dragon Raya is worshipping. As played by actress and rapper Awkwafina, Sisu is a bit silly and underwhelming: There’s not much in this dragon to inspire devotion or laughs.
In the end, while Raya and the Last Dragon may not have the staying power of past Disney princess films, it does offer beautiful scenery and a chance to point out to children the truths of Proverbs: The power of life and death is in the tongue—and as no one, not even dragons, can stand before envy, we should aim not to build societies on it.