Raya and the Last Dragon

“Now to restore peace, I must find the last dragon. My name is Raya.”

Raya and the Last Dragon is an animated fantasy story that follows Raya’s quest to restore the health of the land and unity among the people. The film’s main plot builds on a backstory of disaster amplified by betrayal. A once prosperous land of Kumandra—where people lived happily and under the protection of magical dragons who brought rain, prosperity, and peace—was devastated by a plague-like enemy called Druun. To save humanity, the dragons sacrificed themselves, concentrating all their power on a single gem that defeated the Druun. Only one dragon survived, but she has been missing. In fear, the people divided into chiefdoms, each fighting to possess the gem. Centuries later, this contest leads to betrayal: when Chief Benja of the Heart Tribe invites all other tribes to reunify, an attempt to steal the gem leads to its breaking which releases the Druun again. Each tribe escapes with a piece of the gem. Although each piece offers some local protection, the Druun are expanding. When the Druun invades Heart and Chief Banja, Raya’s father, is turned to stone, the main plot begins. Raya sets out to find the last dragon and heal the land. The search takes six years, but she is eventually able to revive the last dragon Sisu, asleep in a tiny spring at the edge of a desert. Together, they set out to unify fragments of the gem, a quest that helps unify people too. At the very last moment distrust among people—specifically Raya’s distrust of Namaari—again leads to disaster in which Sisu is killed. This leads to all water draining away and the Druun overrunning the city of Fang. When all seems lost, Raya remembers Sisu’s teaching “the world’s broken because you don’t trust anyone.” She and her companions give pieces of the gem to Namaari, sacrificing themselves like the dragons of yore. When Namaari puts the gem together, its power kills the Druun through Kumandra and releases a magical rainstorm that revives the ancient dragons, including Sisu.

Raya and the Last Dragon helps illustrate three climate literacy topics: the world’s aliveness represented by dragons and their elemental gifts (see animism, vitalism, Gaia, web of life); the interconnectedness of people and their environments, in which unity among people leads to wholeness and sustainability, whereas living in separation and disconnect from others represent brokenness and unsustainability (see ecosystems health, planetary health, climate justice); and a vision of regeneration, in which humanity, working together, is able to stop ecocide and create an ecological civilization (see planetarianism, hope). 

The aliveness theme is shown not just through dragons but is inscribed in the map of the land itself: the entire Kumandra, spread along a gigantic, dragon-shaped river, resembles a body of a dragon, with the five chiefdoms called Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail based on their place on the body of the Earth. The interconnectedness theme is even more central to the story. Featuring Disney’s first-ever Southeast Asian princess—and set in a land resembling Southeast Asia (the Fang palace is inspired by Angkor Wat)—the film highlights the need for collective action over individual heroic exploits: no matter how skillful Raya or Namaari are, none of them would be successful acting alone. What makes collective action possible is trust, and the film emphasizes the importance of reaching out to others, overcoming prejudice, and finding common ground. In particular, the most spectacular successes are all outcomes of trust: the dragons trusting Sisu with their power, and Raya trusting Namaari with the gem. Only trust-based togetherness is able to defeat the Druun. Finally, the theme of regeneration is highlighted in the ending: the sacrifice Raya and her companions make is an act of trust and this trust regenerates the entire world. This is represented by life-giving rain, the return of dragons and people, and the regreening of the world. Although we are never told what the Druun is, the fact that it turns all life to ashes and stone—and the fact that it arises out of human discord and disconnect from the natural world—makes the Druun a good metaphor for ecocide and destruction that impacts human and nonhuman communities alike. Likewise, although Raya and Namaari consider one another enemies, their heritage and belief in Sisu bring the two women together. Whether as individuals, groups, or nations, humans function best when they cooperate. As in our world, the clans in Raya and the Last Dragon struggle to find the trust and compassion necessary to make their hopes a reality. Centuries ago, Sisu’s siblings combined their powers and entrusted Sisu with the gem to stop Druun. Now history repeats itself with Raya and Namaari, whose trust repairs the broken world. 

Ultimately, Raya and the Last Dragon communicates that humans are capable of both good and evil, but that our superpower is collective action based on trust. Carrying a message of hope, the film shows that overcoming prejudice, misunderstanding, and fear is necessary to bring about a just, inclusive, beautiful, and sustainable world we all want to see. 

©2023 ClimateLit (Joseph Lin)

Publisher: Disney, 2021

Pages: 115 min.

ISBN: n/a

Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13)

Format: Films

Topics: Animals, Animism, BIPOC Protagonist, Climate Justice, Collective Action, Cultural Diversity, Earth's Aliveness, Ecocide, Ecological Civilization, Ecosystems, Ecosystems Health, Gaia, Hope, Interconnectedness, Mythical Creatures, Planetarianism, Planetary Health, Regeneration, Sustainability, Vitalism, War, Web of Life