2021 is looking pretty good for Disney Animation. Raya and the Last Dragon looks like that good old put-butts-in-seats animated hero adventure fare. This time the protagonist is Raya,
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
The teaser, at least, draws from several beloved cinematic tropes, including Chinese martial arts movies, superhero films, and coming of age stories. There’s a lot of action and martial arts combat in it, and a little exposition on the character of Raya herself – mostly as she interacts with Tuktuk, her pillbug/armillo whatever-he-is. The film is set in the ancient past of an alternate Earth, where the interaction between humans and dragons could affect the course of their history.
Raya herself is not exactly from any one Southeast Asian culture, in the same way that Merida from Disney’s Brave is only vaguely Scottish. The story of the film purportedly draws on traditions from all over that part of the world. The land of Kumandra may be inspired by ancient Southeast Asian empires, like Srivijaya and Majapahit.
It’s Walt Disney Animation Studios’ nineteenth film to have a female protagonist, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, The Rescuers, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan, Home on the Range, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, and Frozen II.
It’s also the first animated film to come from Disney with the new superwide aspect ratio 2.39:1. Most films these days are released in 1.77:1 format, so this new format will have a lot going on in terms of being a fully immersive experience that fully engages one’s peripheral vision. This decision may be driven, in part, by changes in delivery technology which includes streaming to VR headsets, which can put the viewer dead center at the focal point of an arced screen, something impossible in a conventional theater setting.
It’s also the first Disney film, animated or otherwise, to feature a Southeast Asian in the title role. Written by Malaysian-born, United States-based screenwriter Adele Lim, the original release date was to have been in November of this year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been pushed back to March 2021.
From directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, producers Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as the last dragon Sisu, Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon opens in U.S. theaters on March 2021.