Is Raya the Next Big Disney Princess?

The biggest princess news today is that Disney released their first teaser trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon, their next female-driven animated feature that is slated for release in March 2021. Early interviews have hinted that Maya might be joining the Disney Princess line as an adventuresome daughter of the village chief. The trailer does not look anything like a Disney Princess movie from eras past, but it does follow the newer trope of princesses who fight, wear pants, and rebel against society. In other words, it's an action movie that's trying to mooch off the popularity of the Disney Princess brand at the same time. I don't know what to make of these "princess" movies that no longer contain any of the things we love about princesses. However, it doesn't look like a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the animation in the teaser was stunning. It just doesn't look like the princess movie that it is implied to be.

The beginning of the teaser pays homage to Indiana Jones with a montage of our lone heroine invading an ancient temple and using her impressive acrobatic skills to dodge the deadly traps within it. After a beautifully choreographed fight sequence, Raya's voiceover narration provides some insight to her kingdom outside the dark temple. We see shots of indigenous people wearing color-coded outfits that likely represent the tribes in her homeland. Raya explains that her people have been divided and that she needs to find the last dragon in order to reunite them. The trailer makes it abundantly clear that Raya maintains an important position of leadership among her people, something that has been incredibly popular among princess stories in recent years. A princess must no longer go into hiding or wait to be rescued. Instead, she represents the hope of her people and their future.

The film takes place in a kingdom called Kumandra, which is heavily inspired by southeast Asia. The research that the creative team did for the movie shows in the unique and beautiful desert scenery with dust clouds seamlessly integrated into the animation. Like every Disney Princess, Raya has an animal companion named Tuk Tuk, which looks like a roly-poly bug, but is big enough for her to ride like a horse. In a tradition that started with The Princess and the Frog and has been going strong in every Disney Princess movie since, we see Raya as a little girl at the beginning, which encompasses the first half of the teaser. She isn't the type of little girl who runs around being cute, though. She is the type of little girl that goes through rigorous training to fight off bad guys and one day save her kingdom. In these scenes, we see how small Tuk Tuk was when he first became her companion, which leads up to a joke at the end of the trailer about how much harder it is for Raya to flip him over after he grew large enough for her to ride.

Raya and the Last Dragon poster

The teaser gives us a generous preview of the look and feel of the movie, but only a small taste of the story. We know that Raya studied martial arts her whole life to protect something called the Dragon Gem, but we don't know what it does or how finding the last dragon will help her mend the rift between the quarreling tribes in her kingdom. According to the Entertainment Weekly interview, the movie will feature a character played by Awkwafina named Sisu, a dragon who was turned into a human and needs Raya's help to restore her original form. Could Sisu be the last dragon that Raya seeks? It's certainly possible. The little I know about the story sounds promising in terms of original content, even if it doesn't sound like a Disney Princess movie. I had been worried for quite a while now that Disney was slipping in terms of original storytelling and animation. Something as ground-breaking as Raya is definitely a step in the right direction.

There are many different ways that we can interpret this first look at Raya and the Last Dragon. On the one hand, it is yet another female-driven action movie to add to the myriad of similar-looking films that have come out over the past decade. On the other hand, it is the first original animated non-Pixar Disney movie that isn't a sequel since Moana in 2016. In that respect, it looks beautiful and epic. I wish I could see what the dragons look like in Raya's world, but of course, this is only a teaser. It looks like an amazing movie to watch on the big screen if that ever happens, given the state of the world. For now, my first impression of the teaser is that it will be a terrific action movie that will not contain many of the things that I love about Disney Princesses.


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