Disney ventured throughout Southeast Asia with this latest animated feature, unfortunately, the voice talent is predominantly North Asian and does not represent the cultures that the film shows on screen. Kelly Marie Tran, Rose from the recent Star Wars saga, voices Raya. Izaac Wang, the cool kid in Good Boys, voices Boun. Gemma Chan voices Namari. Awkwafina is the star, as Sisu, the last surviving dragon.
The film spends a lot of time on Sisu trying to convince Raya that the world needs to trust each other and be optimistic about building friendship despite decades of history to say otherwise. The film also does a wonderful job of continuously showing why you cannot trust people. The central message is very conflicting because it takes until the last scene for trusting in your enemy to pay off and not immediately bite Raya in the ass.
Visually this film is what you would expect from Disney. It is a bright, shiny, and colorful journey through Southeast Asia. There is nothing groundbreaking aside from venturing through new lands. You do have to know what you are looking at to draw parallels to the real regions displayed on the screen. It is worth reading someone more familiar with the region than I am to understand what is represented.
This film is very similar to the animated Avatar series; one of the best-animated series ever. The quests are similar, the action sequences are similar, the cute animal sidekicks and method of travel are similar. The length of Avatar lets you get immersed in the various kingdoms and appreciate them. Raya never spends enough time in one place for you to appreciate it. It would be impossible to spend as much time as necessary in so many kingdoms in one film, but I still wanted to. I may just have to go rewatch Avatar.
Disney is trying to tell slightly more diverse stories with more diverse casts. It is a step in the right direction, but Disney keeps mis stepping. There are talented actors around the world. There are also talented English speakers that have backgrounds from around the world. Disney needs to do a better job of bringing the right people to the right roles. They also need to work on messaging in their films, so it is not so contradictory. I’m glad I waited to see Raya until it was free. So far Disney has not justified paying for premier access on any of its films when you can just wait for it to show up later.