Maybe it has something to do with 75 years of reinforcing traditional gender roles, but lately Disney has been acting like it has something to atone for. From 2012’s Brave, in which “the female protagonist … breaks the pattern of a [princess] depending on a man for a happily ever after,” to declaring Captain Marvel to be the “strongest Avenger,” the studio has spent the past decade bent on proving that “Disney women are absolute bosses.”
Unfortunately, their attempts have been about as cringe-inducing as that company quote.
Raya and the Last Dragon, which is available via premiere access on Disney+ as of Friday, however, is a significant improvement. For one thing, Disney allows its newest animated princess to simply exist, without burdening her with the responsibility to prove that girls can be powerful, too! And ironically, by backing off the female empowerment klaxon, Raya is far more successful than many of Disney’s more overtly “feminist” superhero and princess movies.
Set in the Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy land of Kumandra, Raya and the Last Dragon is the story of a young warrior princess, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who is on a quest to reunite the kingdom after it’s been overrun by shadowy monsters called Druun. In order to do so, Raya seeks out the help of the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), the last of her kind; together, the pair must track down the far-flung pieces of the shattered dragon gem, which, once whole, has the power to stop the Druun. Hot on Raya’s tail all the while is Namaari (Gemma Chan), a princess of a rival clan whose betrayal of Raya when they were kids led to Raya’s deep-seated trust issues.
Even without digging much into its gender politics, Raya and the Last Dragon is a delight: the world of Kumandra is richly imagined and beautifully rendered, with an array of curious creatures (like Raya’s large and adorable armadillo-like steed Tuk Tuk) and entertaining human companions. Though there’s loads of backstory and a whole host of characters to keep track of, Raya never actually feels overstuffed; rather, it’s easy to picture Disney building out Kumandra as big as it could, to better establish it for future sequels or TV spinoffs. Still, Raya is a deserving original work, something that’s become an increasing rarity from Disney.
Where Raya really comes together though is with, well, Raya. There’s a meta element to her character, too: Many fans believe that Kelly Marie Tran, who voices Raya, was unfairly sidelined when she portrayed Rose Tico in the new Star Wars movies. The actress additionally faced such vile sexist and racist harassment from some members of the Star Wars fandom that she eventually quit Instagram. “Kelly has definitely become more of a s–t-kicker,” comedian and writer Jenny Yang told The Hollywood Reporter. Tran’s equally hardened and vulnerable Raya, then, wasn’t purely manufactured by a studio, but is also pulled from real life; her voice alone makes Raya more three-dimensional.
Raya‘s creative team gets full marks, too. Written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, Raya’s gender is never even momentarily the point of the story. No characters express doubts about her abilities because she’s a girl, and she doesn’t defiantly set out to prove anyone wrong. Raya has female and male friends, but also no one resembling a love interest; the script doesn’t mention marriage in any form. In this way, Raya breaks with even the most progressive princess movies that Disney has made so far, Brave and Frozen, where marriage and love are still significant parts of the plot.
Disney’s independent-minded leads have also still tended to be chaperoned by “funny” male sidekicks, a trope Raya subverts by teaming its protagonist up with Awkwafina’s goofy Sisu. Unlike Mishu in the original Mulan, or Olaf in Frozen, or Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, or Lumière in Beauty and the Beast — all male characters who, to varying degrees, help advise or guide the princesses through times of doubt — Sisu is hilarious and helpful and given a feminine appearance and voice. That’s important both because it stresses that female characters can be funny too — still, sadly, such a rarity in animated movies — and also that Raya doesn’t need any paternal guidance to keep her on her path.
Most remarkable of all, though, is how Disney holds off on pandering during Raya’s fight scenes. The studio typically finds it necessary to stress that its female characters are just as badass as its male characters, and it does so in ways that end up feeling strained and counterproductive. Take the embarrassing “lady Avengers assemble” scene in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, which is a reminder of all the female characters the franchise sidelined in favor of focusing on male superheros over the years, or the way Mulan takes her hair down before a battle in the 2020 live-action remake — it’s hilariously impractical, but the studio apparently needed to emphasize she’s a woman somehow! Raya and the Last Dragon shares no such anxieties; Raya fights because there is no one else around who will, and her primary enemy is her rival, Namaari, which eliminates the chance of sending a gratuitous and superficial message about how girls can hold their own against boys. We know.
For years, critics such as myself have complained that to actually make a difference, Disney needs to stop paying lip service to feminism with condescending “girl power” scenes, and actually show that they believe their own messaging with their actions. How do they do that? By making original movies where a female character isn’t just playing the “lady” version of a male character. By making movies where women can be flawed and imperfect and complicated, not just symbols of aspirational feminism. By making movies that launch new franchises, defined by their female characters. By making movies — well, like Raya.
Disney never needed to embarrass itself with all that transparent faux-feminism, as it turns out. By respecting Raya as her own character who is capable of making decisions without a male helper, as well as fighting her own battles with as little fanfare as a male character would raise, Disney seems to finally be getting it. Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t great because it’s a glittery story of female empowerment that shows young girls that they can grow up to be heroes, too. It’s great simply because it never expected them to be anything else.