Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon ★★

When I heard Disney was going to make an animated adventure set in Southeast Asia I was genuinely worried about the challenge they’d undertaken. Everyone knows that countries like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia et. al. are so culturally bland and uninteresting with so few stories to tell, and that there’s hardly any mythology or mystery to them. Thankfully Disney decided instead to create a brand new mythical realm of their own from scratch—and conveniently they own and control all of the intellectual property rights to this land too! Smart!

I’m one hundred percent sure that the filmmakers, many of them Asian and some of them even Southeast Asian, were sincere in their desire to pay homage to the region. But the net result of their approach to “Raya” is really a kind of assault on _all_ Asian cultures because it posits that they’re all the same, interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another. This movies milieu is a bloodless, corporatized melange of different ideas, religions, customs, ethnicities and even cuisines. It’s the P.F. Chang’s of cinema; why go to a “real” ethnic restaurant when you can get a half dozen Asian cultures thrown in a wok, stir fried together and presented in Americanese? 

Not even the obvious, draughtsmanlike care that they invested into the character designs, which are commendably specific in their rendering of authentically Asian facial types, is enough to offset the cultural whitewashing here. In fact by insisting that these wildly diverse kinds of people are really all the same people, with no discussion or acknowledgement of their cultural particularities, and by imbuing them all with 21st century, gen-Z, American-centric, Tik Tok Teen slang and mannerisms, they are saying the only true nationality is Disney.

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