Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon marked the entrance of the first South Asian Disney Princess into the pantheon of women that we’ve loved for years and years. In recent years, the production company has used these films to tackle very complex topics. With Mulan, they tackled the barriers women face due to antiquated implicit biases in institutions like the army, in Moana, they tackled the idea of grief and healing from pain, and in Frozen 2, they took on the idea of colonialism and reparations from colonizers.
A lot of these topics are expansive and somewhat difficult for parents to talk about on their own, if not just awkward to shoehorn into normal conversion. That’s why it’s so exciting to see Disney’s use of its platform as the major media production company of our time to continue to explore how they can incorporate socially relevant themes into fantasy stories. Raya and the Last Dragon tackle quite a lot of these ideas. So is it an allegory for one thing in particular? Not really, but part of the greatness of this film is how much it aims to say.
The Importance of Globalism
Already a huge topic, a far cry from Sleeping Beauty’s message of “don’t play with sharp objects when you’re told not to.” To give some context, a driving force of the plot of this film is the way in which the land it’s set in has fractured into different factions, only interested in the preservation of their own community in the face of a supernatural threat that roams the land turning people into stone. Immediately this conjures to mind the idea of scarcity and the safety of individual nations in our current world.
Given how this movie was released during the pandemic, the debate between the nations of Raya about how some of them are more deserving of protection (that was made out to be foolish and misled leadership through the writing) eerily mirrored the way that richer nations were acquiring resources to protect themselves from the virus while other countries were left to figure it out. The final message of this film is that nobody wins when we spend time looking out for our own self-interests: when our neighbor falls, there’s a chance we could be next. Maybe we could learn something from that
Geopolitics and Bigotry
Okay, another heavy topic related to geopolitics but to be fair, this film took on a lot. The reason the conflict of this film happens in the first place is with a debate over who is the most deserving of the dragon gemstone, the Disney movie trope of the object that allows the world to flourish. Only there’s a catch with this one: it only allows the region that possesses it to flourish. The others are kind of just left to suffer.
The separation of these nations without the sharing of resources— oh, here I go talking about globalism again— breeds resentment between them, so by the time the leaders meet to make a conference about opening their borders to each other and functioning as a peaceful world, four out of five of the nations are just planning on taking the dragon gem and using it to help their own nation. The chaos that follows the inciting incident of the gem being broken in a fight for control over it shows the dangers of forming an idea of an entire people’s entitlement to resources and protection. And furthermore, the way that the gem, the allegorical object for prosperity and resources, is kept from those who need it, gives a cautionary message about over-consuming and forcing the idea of one’s own entitlement.
Is it reaching on my end to relate a Disney film to foreign politics so heavily? Maybe, but as someone who studies film in college, I absolutely love looking too far into anything that goes up on screen and doing a crazy deep dive until I’ve stressed myself silly. Anyways, here’s how Raya and the Last Dragon tackle global climate change. Short spoiler ahead: water is the thing that keeps the supernatural entities that wander the land turning people to stone away from people. It’s the one thing that they can’t cross. At the end of the film, something (and I won’t say what, just to preserve the emotional gut-punch value) happens leading all of the water to dry up. Suddenly they are without protection and at risk of a sudden mass disaster with nothing to protect them.
This is too on the nose to not be about global climate change. I mean, natural resources running out due to the actions of humans, a sudden mass disaster in a dried-up land, the fact that it’s directly tied to the water level (only in this one it’s because the water level falls, not rises). Unsurprisingly, I left this film with more climate anxiety than the warm fuzzies that I normally get from Disney. It’s great to see a production company with such a range.
The Battle Between Streaming-Only Projects on Disney Plus
This film was considered a “box office” flop due to its low sale of premier access for Disney Plus users compared to other films that were put out as streaming exclusives while movie theaters were closed. But when you look at the sheer outpouring of content from Disney that was priced at around $30 for a limited-time viewing of EACH ONE, it’s very easy to see why this manufacturing competition ended up causing some films to lose out on the streaming money spoils. Much like the fighting between the five nations in Raya, the films Black Widow, Cruella, Jungle Cruise, Luca, and Soul were all released within the same few months. When thinking about my movie budgeting, I’m not planning on spending $150 on Disney films alone during the summer. I don’t think anyone is.
Maybe the creators of Raya knew that they were up against other giant projects and knew that there was a chance they would lose out given the way Disney’s marketing was starting to pan out. Maybe their film about the futility of competition was a pointed remark at the very production company that sidelined them in the first place. Regardless of whether or not that was their intention, Raya left me with this: we should all love each other, and Disney movies should be free if I’m already paying for Disney Plus.