Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
A quest to save her world.
Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s first original animated film in five years and marks the 59th feature in the Disney animated canon, which kick-started back in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While animation quality has undoubtedly evolved over the years (from 2D hand-drawn to 3D computer-generated), timely themes and messages have remained constant as a crucial part of Mouse House’s charm, success, and appeal. Raya and the Last Dragon is no exception, being a princess story for the 21st Century, with Disney respectfully exploring marginalized cultures and peoples within their narratives.
The themes underscoring Raya are those of unity and togetherness, which seem appropriate given that the world was recently hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, so messages of hope and optimism are welcome. Raya hits theatres on March 4th, albeit a few months after its initial planned release date of November 25th, 2020 — and for those who still can’t access a cinema safely, it will drop on Disney+ as a premium item (like last year’s Mulan) the following day. The film is a stunningly animated family fantasy adventure that deserves to be seen on the large screen. Sure, it’s a tad predictable given that it follows a traditional Hollywood formula, but it’s charming, gorgeously realized, and features a host of memorable characters that in the best and most surprising ways subvert expectations — think a baby that scams people using her cuteness. The film’s star Raya (voiced endearingly by Kelly Marie Tran) is also a standout, a resilient, focused, and fearless woman whom youngsters can aspire to emulate.
The story takes place in a re-imagined fantastical country Kumandra (inspired by Southeast Asian cultures). We meet protagonist Raya as a solitary warrior riding through a dry and desolate wasteland on a giant bug-pug named Tuk Tuk (voiced by Disney regular Alan Tudyk). Through Raya’s narration, we learn that the once peaceful and prosperous realm has been ‘broken’ and that it’s all Raya’s fault. Long ago (some 500 years), humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when shapeless, ethereal destructive entities, known as Druun threatened the land — evil spirits born of human conflict that viciously multiply and turn all living beings to stone — the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Since then, the once united kingdom has been divided into separate dominions — these include the Fang, Talon, Tail, Spine, and Heart Land, which together form the shape of a dragon.
As a young girl, Raya used to reside in Heart, a glowing empire atop an arched tree-coated mountain — there’s a cool little Indiana Jones-inspired sequence here that introduces us to Raya as a young fighter, wide-eyed and full of promise. It turns out that Raya and her beloved father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), the Chief of the Heart lands, were once proud Guardians of the Dragon Gem, a luminous stone born from the dragon’s sacrifice which kept the amorphous Druun at bay. However, their duty as protectors made the other kingdoms envious, the neighboring nations believing that the scared stone gave Heart more power and eminence over the rest of the regions. Raya’s father, though, had faith in humankind and hoped to one day quell the divide and resentment between the peoples. Thus, he invites the other kingdoms to Heart to break bread and hopefully begin to heal some longstanding wounds.
Although skeptical of Benja’s generosity, the bordering realms’ leaders take up his invitation and visit Heart. During this get-together, Raya finds kinship with Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), princess of Fang land, with the two girls bonding over their shared love of dragons. Raya’s blind kindness, however, opens the door to betrayal, as the calculated Namaari tricks Raya into disclosing the hidden gem’s whereabouts, Raya learning that Namaari and Virana, the Fang chief (voiced by Sandra Oh), had been plotting to steal it all along. Alas, when all five empires fight over possession of the stone, it breaks into five pieces, and the Druun resurface, wreaking chaos and havoc once more and sucking the land of its beauty and splendor. They also turn a heap of people to stone, including Raya’s father. This traumatic event shapes how Raya views the world today — as a dark and callous place full of greed and mistrust.
Cut back to the present, where Raya (a lone wolf riding through the desert) is now on a mission to collect all five fragments of the Dragon Gem distributed over Kumandra (one held in each of the five lands) in order to free her father. She is also searching for the fabled last dragon Sisudatu, or Sisu for short (voiced by Awkwafina), a divine water being of incredible grace and unspeakable magic, who, according to legend, can piece together the shattered shards of stone and restore the land and its people. All the while, the ruthless and formidable Namaari is in pursuit of Raya, the daughter of the Fang land Chief vowing to protect her region and its citizens no matter the cost with Fang unwilling to give up their chunk of the Dragon Gem — the one thing that safeguards their people and home.
While the plot’s particulars may sound a little tricky to decipher, screenwriters Adele Lim and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen keep the focus on the characters, with their motivations and objectives clear and consistent, the stakes always plainly in sight. Through her writing, Lim gives this film similar character-driven humor seen in her script for Crazy Rich Asians (2018). The comedy alleviates some of the script’s darker aspects and action-adventure tension. Moreover, directors Don Hall, Big Hero 6 (2014), and Carlos López Estrada, Blindspotting (2018), keep the proceedings fun, fast-paced and fresh with each frame bursting with wonder, color, and imagination. The animation is truly exceptional — this is Disney’s best-looking movie yet!
Whilst in the past Disney has been known for their Princess stories, Raya and the Last Dragon is a step in a different direction, a YA-adventure of sorts, complete with a dystopian backdrop and a more modern-day heroine. The fierce and kinetic martial arts showdowns and exciting action set-pieces ensure that the film has a more universal appeal. Fun Fact: Scribe Nguyen served as a martial arts consultant on the project. With that said, though, I kind of missed the upbeat musical segments more typical of Disney fare, even though the bold score by composer James Newton Howard, The Dark Knight (2008), which beautifully combines Southeast Asian instruments with modern pop sensibilities, hits all the right beats, emotionally and narratively.
Along Raya’s journey, she visits a handful of exotic locations — we stopover at the bustling floating market of Talon, which stages a cool chase scene between Raya and 2-year-old con baby named Little Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran), who’s aided by her three monkey-catfish Ongis accomplices; the thriving and powerful empire of Fang, bordered by a fort of water; and Spine, a remote, snow-blanketed terrain whose people have a grave distrust of outsiders. What’s more, each of these environments is distinct, in the way that the architecture and topography is unique to the setting, as well as intricate design elements that are meaningful and specific — skin tones differ and there are small details and cultural nods to individual nations. It’s a tremendous achievement artistically and respectful to the cultures being portrayed. Genuine praise goes to the diverse and talented team who worked (tirelessly, I’m sure) on and off the screen, Disney conducting various research trips and collaborating closely with a cultural story trust throughout the production.
As Raya ventures to the distinct regions, she picks up allies along the way, reinforcing the film’s themes of trust, community, and forgiveness. The movie is a courageous journey of self-discovery and healing that comments on the evil of divisiveness and how positive influence and understanding others can make the world a better place.
Vocal work by the mostly Asian cast is excellent, with lead Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), anchoring the film and bringing emotion and vulnerability to the character of Raya, who at first seems like a hardened badass. As the film progresses, we learn that Raya is much more flawed, her softer side shining through via Marie Tran’s nuanced turn — those Rose Tico haters may be converted after seeing the actress’s range and scope here. Awkwafina, who recorded a large bulk of her lines during the COVID-19 quarantine, brings a goofiness and heart to Sisu — think Genie from Aladdin — a funny, self-deprecating dragon who sees herself as more of a C-class creature despite having saved the world once before, the chemistry between the two leads magnetic.
Elsewhere, Gemma Chan, who we’ll soon see in Marvel’s Eternals (2021), does wonders with the role of Namaari, Raya’s nemesis, who proves to be a lot more layered and complicated than the average Disney villain. Finally, Izaac Wang, Good Boys (2019), adds levity at a street-savvy kid from Tail named Boun, a self-appointed ‘owner, manager, chef and captain’ of his boat, the Shrimporium, while Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange (2016), brings gravitas to the role of Tong, who, underneath his gruff, ferocious exterior, is a real gentle giant, the eye-patch wearing lone woodsman having a soft spot for children. The latter two characters join Raya on her epic quest and are fun editions to the ragtag team.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a sweet-natured, compelling story of redemption that reaffirms Disney Animation for being head of the pack when it comes to representation, continuing to explore the beauty of the wider world — look at Moana (2016) and Frozen II (2019). With a contemporary spin on the princess tale and a gripping story to boot, this film’s a real treat, the vivid animation, worldbuilding, and characters the movie’s mightiest assets. If anything, with its trifecta of strong female characters at its core (Raya, Namaari, and Sisu), Raya and the Last Dragon, while not Disney’s finest effort to date, stands as their most progressive as far as post-Renaissance princess stories go. I can see Raya and Namaari becoming future cosplay favorites!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Stu Cachia (S-Littner)