No musical numbers, just good old trust

Raya from “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the newest Disney princess, and she has changed what it means to be one and the lessons princesses can teach us.

by Josie Fox, Opinion Editor

Disney princesses have come a long way since my five year old self sat with wide eyes glued to my grandparents’ television set watching “The Little Mermaid.” As a child, my main takeaway from my favorite Disney princess movies — like “Pocahontas” — did not exceed the memorization of song lyrics and the desire, rather the need to grow out my hair just as long as theirs. Even though Disney has broadened the definition of what a Disney princess is in recent years, I have never seen a Disney princess movie like “Raya and the Last Dragon” — at least not one this serious. 

As the black movie screen fades into the technicolor fantasy world of Kumandra, you are immediately dropped into the lore of the movie. Nearly 500 years ago, in the land of Kumandra, dragons and humans lived in harmony together — the dragons kept their end by giving humans resources like water to live. Then one day the evil Druun — a massive and constantly morphing blob of black and purple goop — comes and tries to take over the world, and like Medusa, turns everyone into stone. 

Of course we humans couldn’t save ourselves so the dragons save us — pretty selflessly in fact. Now 500 years later, Princess Raya of Heart, one of the divided regions of Kumandra which no longer lives in harmony, is fighting alongside her father to protect the dragon stone which basically holds the spirits/powers of the frozen dragons and helps protect the world from the Druun. Quite predictably, Raya is  betrayed by the antagonist, Princess Namaari of Fang — one of the other divided regions of Kumandra — when she tries to show Namaari her family’s dragon stone. Spoiler: it breaks and representatives of the five regions each steal a piece to protect themselves from the Druun. 

This is where the two biggest themes of Raya come into play: trust and unity. These themes are precisely what make Raya so different in the realm of Disney princess movies; there are no musical numbers or knights in shining armour to save the day. It’s just you in the theater or at home watching it’s premiere on Disney Plus, marinating in Raya’s journey with no musical or romantic distraction whatsoever. Not that memorable Disney princess songs and princes aren’t cool, it was just nice for them not to be a plot point for once. 

The movie is also heavily inspired by a multitude of East and Southeast Asian cultures, down to the soundtrack which was yet another aspect of this movie that I absolutely adored. It is by far the most diverse Disney princess movie I’ve ever seen and deals with very serious themes that kids in today’s world have been born into and grown up in. For example, a very tumultuous and xenophobic political climate. 

Even though the movie does not take place in America, the theme of trust in those who are different from you seemed to critique a lot of the division we have seen within America over the past five years, and I really appreciate this very important lesson! Sure, I could tell you that the animation was phenomenal, because it was, but it is by far not the thing that resonated the most with me. Throughout the film, Raya along with Sisu, the last dragon, are fighting to bring unity back to Kumandra and completely destroy the Druun and it’s all because Sisu trusts people she “shouldn’t.” 

Once again, in classic human fashion, Raya wants to fight and battle to get the last piece of the dragon stone; but Sisu on the other hand keeps wanting to give gifts to people and use trust as the band-aid for every situation. This difference in perspective is so key to how the story plays out. In the end, Raya realizes that Sisu is right, she needs to trust people in order to restore unity to Kumandra — and so do the kids watching this movie. Growing up in a polarizing political climate does the opposite of teach trust and with a movie like this that teaches the beauty in trusting the “enemy” can revolutionize the future of our country. 

Raya does end up trusting Namaari again, but it takes a death and a few selfless acts to get there. Raya trusts her with restoring the broken dragon stone pieces even though Namaari killed Sisu on accident — kind of. But, the moment in which Raya’s act of trust is crystallized, is the moment when she turns to stone because she no longer has a piece to protect her from the Druun. It was the ultimate act of trust, the protagonist turns to stone and is no longer the person who could save Kumandra. 

While the ending was rather predictable, Raya, Namaari, Sisu and the rest of the gang do end up destroying the Druun and Kumandra unites once more. While it does still end with the classic fairytale ending, it was one that I found myself hoping to see in this world. One in which trust outweighs our differences and destroys all evil.