My 3-year-old is scared of most things – and that includes the movies she deeply loves. This is connected to why my partner and I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Disney’s latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon. She watched the whole thing wide-eyed and trembling, hiding in my shoulder innumerable times — and when it was over? She asked if we could watch it again right away. Raya has recently moved from Disney+ premium access status, which means you no longer have to pony up $29.00 bucks for it. Here’s why you should watch it with your little one and why, for this parent, the movie feels like this generation’s version of The Last Unicorn.
When you are small, everything seems huge and vaguely ominous. The buildings of our childhood when revisited as adults can seem miniature when compared with the terrifying scope in which a child sees the world. That goes double when it comes to how kids perceive their favorite movies.
While my partner looked on seemingly baffled as our tyke wailed throughout her insisted upon a second viewing (“why is the dragon alonnnnnne! Why? Is Raya gonna be okay? Where is her daddy? Will it get better soon?”) I felt nothing other than a great well of empathy. Her developing relationship to this new movie reminded me very much of my own first experience with a scary favorite movie.
When I was a kid way back in the 1980s, I was obsessed with The Last Unicorn. Sad moody songs as sung by the band America, Mia Farrow at her Mia-Farrow-est, stunning Japanese animation and the story of the last unicorn on Earth desperately searching for others like her? Sign me and every other kid my age up!
But as much as I loved the movie (and still love it), a huge part of what I found so compelling about the story and the world in which it took place was just how badly it terrified me. I watched it over and over again, not just because I loved it, but because I wanted to make myself immune to its horrors (for example, a Harpy disemboweling a still-living witch) I kept hitting rewind, kept watching it again once the VHS tape had spooled back to the start.
It is a fascinating thing to watch my kiddo follow the same sort of path when it comes to what she loves to watch. In fact, it isn’t just the fear that conjured up memories of The Last Unicorn in me, it was the story of Raya and the Last Dragon itself which hits many of the same kind of storytelling notes: a mythical creature, the dangers of selfishness, a mission to correct a great injustice. Frankly, in many ways I’d go as far as to say that Raya and the Last Dragon is the spiritual successor of The Last Unicorn…except, god help me for admitting it, it’s so much better. When I obsessed over Unicorn, I was obsessing over a totally white cast, a total white and Western story. If I wanted to put myself in a character’s shoes, I imagined I was a unicorn or imagined I was a world-weary lady thief.
My kid on the other hand has Raya with its diverse cast, non-Western story, and a real live human girl to relate with — and you know, Awkwafina’s general badassery in place of Mia Farrow’s very earnest but the soft and passive portrayal of an immortal creature and frankly it doesn’t get any better than that.