Released on March 5, 2021, Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a film of many firsts. Raya is Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. Raya is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, the first Southeast Asian actor to lead a Disney animated feature.
And the film features Patti Harrison, the first known trans voice actor in the history of Disney animation.
Apart from these aforementioned firsts, Raya and the Last Dragon is also groundbreaking in being a Disney movie that has no villains.
Instead of a villain, the film features nuanced, humanized antagonists who are desperate leaders trying to protect their people. In Kumandra, a Southeast Asian fantasy world where shadowy monsters called the Druun turn people into stone, both Raya and her enemies must learn that the only way to survive is to come together.
Every character has a family
The film’s protagonists are vulnerable people trying to reunite with their lost families. After her father sacrificed himself to save her, Raya must find the last dragon to turn her father back from stone.
Along the way, she finds unlikely allies in each of the warring clans: a ten-year-old chef and entrepreneur, a gentle warrior-giant, and a toddler con artist with a troop of thieving monkeys.
And of course, Sisu the last dragon, who is also trying to reunite with lost siblings.
Similarly, the film’s antagonists are vulnerable people trying to keep their families alive. Namaari, Raya’s childhood best friend, tries to thwart Raya at every step in the hope that capturing the last dragon’s magic will save her own people.
Notably, Namaari is never casted as the villain. In fact, while Raya takes the first step, it is Namaari who saves everyone in the end.
What do Disney villains represent?
In historical context, that Raya and the Last Dragon has no villains is revolutionary. Disney has a history of releasing problematic villains that are coded with traits attributed to marginalized communities.
For instance, Ursula in The Little Mermaid is given the look of a drag queen. In the original Jungle Book, the villainous apes speak in jive slang and their ‘king’ tells the British English-speaking Mowgli, “I wanna be like you,” embodying dehumanizing, racist comparisons between Black people and apes.
So, Raya and the Last Dragon asks us to consider what roles villains truly serve in children’s films. What message are we sending with our villains?
Raya’s message is that our true villains are the mistrust we hold towards other people. The allegories abound: the filmmakers are speaking to a country—and perhaps a world—more fractured, politically divisive, and broken than ever.
The theme of unity particularly speaks to communities that have struggled to come together, despite having a common oppressor.
Set in a Southeast Asian inspired world, Raya and the Last Dragon and Kelly Marie Tran especially speak to unity and trust in the Asian American Pacific Islander community.
This is especially crucial when the community can be divided along the lines of the myriad peoples and ethnicities that make up Asia and America.
Raya’s solidarity: what it means to truly come together
One of the film’s most notable aspects is that it takes care to show that coming together, learning to trust, seeing people outside of stereotypes is a process. It is a difficult one—but one that is not only meaningful and fulfilling and absolutely critical to our very survival.
From Raya’s first uttered prejudices towards the Fang people to her placing her life and the lives of her people in Namaari’s hands, that journey has never been easy. As a parallel, the film also shows Namaari’s journey to trust Raya.
There are no villains here, only the same story told from two distinct—yet surprisingly alike—points of view.
Raya and the Last Dragon shows children how hard it is to be hopeful, to take responsibility for mistakes, to make decisions for a people, and to create reverberating change.
The lack of villains means that everyone is humanized, central to the movie’s theme: in order to come together, we must see “the other” as a human being, not a villain.
In a film of many firsts, Raya teaches us how to take the first step in solidarity.