Raya and the Last Dragon, Avatar, and Korra are part of a vital new trend

I’ve constantly had a soft area for finding familiar tropes, archetypes, and Easter eggs in TELEVISION and motion pictures — like capturing all of the Lord of the Rings bits in an episode of Bob’s Hamburgers, or acknowledging a ship called Tranquility on an episode of The Area. Disney movies make this procedure especially enjoyable: The studio has a propensity for generating income from recommendations throughout their huge franchises. Marvel movies are constantly loaded with minutes of fan service for those who have actually maintained with the cinematic universe, Ralph Breaks the Web included Disney’s whole princess lineup, and Pixar animators typically discreetly pop characters from one movie into another as easter egg cameos.

So I valued that Disney’s brand-new cartoon animation Raya and the Last Dragon offered me the opportunity to play spot-the-reference, whether deliberate or not. I related the movie to Mulan, the Disney classic I matured with. Both movies star an Asian lady driven to fight in order to secure a precious daddy, with a dragon partner who offers comical relief. Both movies utilize plucked flowers drifting on still water to communicate sorrow. That stated, I don’t wish to recommend they’re the very same — specifically as Mulan is embeded in China, whereas Raya’s story occurs in a dream world based upon Southeast Asian nations like Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.

When Raya’s early trailers came out, fans discovered an aesthetically comparable character in Avatar: The Last Airbender’s co-protagonist waterbender Katara (and Korra, of the spinoff series Legend of Korra), thanks to resemblances in young Raya’s attire and hairdo. I had actually likewise discovered this, and wound up playing a sort of tug-of-war with myself. I was stressed over Raya’s filmmakers recycling Katara as a visual archetype — however I likewise chastised myself for the presumption that these figures equaled even if they used comparable clothes, and were darker-skinned Asian ladies. Primarily, I had actually never ever seen a huge kids’s dream release that led me to make these contrasts prior to.

Naamari and her mother in Raya and the Last Dragon

Image: Disney

However after enjoying Raya and the Last Dragon, the Avatar: The Last Airbender contrast dropped from my mind. Raya advised me more of the mentally far-off however physically effective heroine archetype — like The Appetite Games’ Katniss Everdeen — hammering out a divided post-apocalyptic world. I mored than happy that others covering the movie mainly dropped the contrast too. However a couple of pieces did go on to draw connections in between Kumandra’s warring factions and charming, innovative animal mashups to the ones in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both of these are hardly tropes specific to Last Airbender, though — they’re common themes that can be found across science and fantasy fiction.

As entertainment continues to diversify, we’ll keep bumping into this grey area in between what we consider archetypes vs. characters who feel similar because they’re from the same race or cultural background. It’s a particularly salient question for speculative fiction stories, which are known for having well-established tropes. New releases are marked by substantial discourse around spotting references, like scoping out WandaVision’s Marvel Easter eggs. People have always compared new heroes and stories to their favorites from the past.

Some predominant archetypes have emerged in speculative fiction, and they often provoke questions about whether a given character was fully based on a predecessor, like Harry Potter’s wizard headmaster Dumbledore, who looks suspiciously similar to Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf. But these historical throughlines are typically the provenance of white characters, because so much of the speculative canon — and even more recent science fiction and fantasy films — have centered on white characters. The ur-texts of modern science fiction and fantasy blockbusters tended to reinforce the idea of whiteness as neutral.

Western high fantasy continues to reckon with a racist legacy. Classic texts, authored in eras where racist portrayals were the absolute norm, often ended up propagating these beliefs in the form of maligned fantasy races and classes of characters, like J.R.R. Tolkein’s portrayals of orcs and goblins. The standard-for-the-time British colonialist attitudes he baked into his work have trickled down all kinds of modern fantasy entertainment. Dungeons & Dragons publishers, for example, are now reckoning with the RPGs racist stereotyping.

In this environment, people of color in prominent roles are more likely to be tokenized or hyper-visible in ways that draw more immediate comparison, and to suffer severe backlash when they don’t conform to the historical casting of a science fiction or fantasy property. This is true for Asian Americans who are cast in starring roles, like when Kelly Marie Tran was harassed by racist and misogynistic trolls after playing Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. The severity of the harassment led her to deactivate her Instagram account.

A crowd of tribespeople gather in Raya and the Last Dragon

Image: Disney

At the same time, Hollywood has a long history of selectively infusing a mishmash of Asian — or what TV and film creators thought of as “Asian” — architecture, art, language, and fashion into speculative-fiction worlds, all without casting Asian actors to populate these Asian-inspired worlds. Cyberpunk films like Blade Runner and even the more recent Blade Runner 2049 are a great example. To provide a better comparison to Raya: the most popular children’s fantasy franchise, Harry Potter, mostly flattened its Asian characters. Much like other characters of color in the series, Cho Chang and Padma and Parvati Patil mostly served to slightly diversify the general population of the wizarding world, even however the narrative remained white-centered.

For years, Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the few cartoons made by Americans, aimed at children, and set in an Asian-inspired dream world that actually starred Asian characters. I love the show, and I’m impressed by how well its politics and characters hold up more than 15 years later. But it is funny to compare it to Raya when its world-building leaned heavily toward East Asian influences. While there are still relatively few massively popular Asian-centered cartoons written by Asian people in American media, there’s an even greater scarcity of animated shows and films centered on Southeast Asian characters specifically.

When I watched Raya and the Last Dragon, I was thrilled to see this fantasy world primed to reach a large audience thanks to the Disney name, and excited to add Raya and Namaari to the Asian action-princess pantheon. And while I enjoyed comparing Raya to other Asian women action stars, I was just as excited to connect her story to other recent tropes in children’s fantasy media. Raya has its similarities to Mulan, and to Last Airbender. But the comparisons don’t end there. In Namaari and Raya, I saw Catra and Adora from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, and thought about readings of Frozen’s Elsa as queer. I’ve typically joked that particular characters needed to stroll so others might run, like Princess Bubblegum and Marceline in Experience Time making area for other queer woman relationships onscreen. I anticipate seeing the characters Raya may influence — the action-adventure heroes who will get to run thanks to her time in the spotlight.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.