While there’s always a debate over who counts as a Disney princess, Raya is undoubtedly a role model that children everywhere should see and look up to.
The movie sees plucky chief’s daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) go on a quest to find the last dragon after an ancient evil called the Druun ravages her home of Kumandra.
Along the way Raya goes through the mandatory life lessons – she gains a bit of bravery, she finds her own identity, and she importantly learns to open up and trust people – but it’s how she goes about these character arcs that set her apart.
There are now 14 official Disney princesses dating all the way back to Snow White in 1937, but over the years, we’ve seen a change in how these characters are portrayed. Merida focused on family relationships in Brave, Elsa famously convinces Anna not to marry a man she just met in Frozen, and Moana ditches the usual princess get-up and love interest for a culturally authentic adventure in the Polynesian high seas.
But Raya represents the full culmination of the move to a modern Disney Princess – she doesn’t sing, she doesn’t wear an extravagant dress and she doesn’t even have a love interest.
She’s still a Disney princess though – she has royal blood as the daughter of the Chief of Heart – but is independent, and on a mission to save not just her own people but ultimately the other regions of Kumandra too.
She’s definitely the hero we all need – a warrior, a friend and a leader.
The first Southeast Asian princess
Raya is officially Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. She’s not the studio’s first Asian princess of course – that honour goes to Mulan – but this is still a big step forward for representation and a generation of Southeast Asian children will now have their very own animated princess to look up to and relate to.
However, there’s also been a strong effort to authentically represent the various cultures of Southeast Asia in the movie – not only are the main cast of Southeast Asian descent, but everything from the setting, to the clothing, to the food, reflect the countries of the southeastern subregion. Just look out for references from the traditional Filipino hat the Sakalot, to Southeast Asian martial arts such as Muay Thai and Arnis, to the film’s focus on the area’s famous food – check out our guide to the film’s top dishes to make your very own Kumandran meal.
Raya shows you can be your own hero
No waiting around for a Prince here – Raya teaches the important lesson that you can be your own hero. Indeed, when her father is turned to stone she doesn’t let that defeat her. Instead, Raya sets out on a quest to save her father, and saves herself plenty of times while she is at it.
Raya takes ownership of her story and begins a years-long quest to save her people and her lands when things get tough – and while she makes friends and gets a bit of help along the way, that never undermines Raya’s independence or her own personal heroic quest to save her people.
Raya shows how important trust is
An important part of being a relatable and realistic hero is not being perfect – it’s important to recognise that you have flaws like everybody else, and that only by working on them can you grow as a person.
Raya doesn’t trust anybody at the start of her journey – even turning down the kind offer of food from Boun – but slowly learns to open up to people once again, and indeed, it’s only by putting faith in her friends that Raya is finally able to save the day.
Raya shows a princess is brave
Raya shows no hesitation in taking up her dangerous quest, which more than once results in her getting involved in some physical fights and scrapes. This princess is a trained warrior also and a master of hand-to-hand combat, and is more than capable of holding her own during her many run-ins with Namaari.
However, Raya’s true display of bravery is an emotional one – it takes courage to stand up to our enemies, but Raya takes a big step when she realises she needs friends, and after years on her own it takes true emotional maturity to accept her flaws and start becoming part of a community.
Raya changes what a princess can be
Raya really aspires to take her father’s place as chief and be as good a guardian as he was, but only because she has a strong sense of duty and loves her people. This technically makes her a princess but it’s far from her whole identity – she’s proven herself to be a fierce warrior in her own right, and carves out her own path of self-discovery by befriending and uniting the various people of Kumandra.
But despite being physically very capable and intellectually mature, the filmmakers still imbue Raya with a sense of humour and personality, and once she starts opening up with Sisu we see her playfulness and wit.
Here is a princess that’s intelligent, funny and strong. There’s nothing wrong with princesses of bygone days, but Raya is someone we can look up to and see ourselves in her struggle.
Disney Plus is all new, all summer long, with Raya and the Last Dragon available to stream for all Disney Plus subscribers from 4th June.