Synopsis – In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon.
My Take – A few months ago, considering how unprecedented everything looked, it didn’t come as a surprise when Disney, taking cue from their last year’s release, the deeply erratic big-budget live action remake of Mulan, announced that their latest Disney Animation film too would be heading straight to streaming on Disney+ for American audience along with the selected theatrical showings in the overseas (including the U.A.E).
However, the biggest difference here is this latest Disney princess tale from directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) is actually worth the premium purchase price or better a ticket to the biggest screen available near you, as it joins Disney‘s long line of excellent animated adventures and is certainly one of their most spectacular.
Inspired by the cultures and folklore of Southeast Asia, this magic-laced quest adventure, working as a cross between Moana (2016) and Studio Ghibli films, is a very fun action-adventure story with gorgeous animation and an interesting core theme. It’s also got all the bells and whistles of classic Disney Animation right down to the lively supporting cast of characters to provide comedy for Raya’s straight-woman, snappy patter and its colorful magical sidekick.
Boasting real wow factor, this latest tradition of introducing spunky Disney daughters to the family audience, is just another example of how Disney as a studio still does it best.
Set in a fantasy land called Kumandra, the story follows Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the princess of the land of Heart, who along with the her father, Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), works to protect a magic blue orb, created by Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) a powerful dragon, who 500 years ago along with others like her, sacrificed herself to stop the Druun, a shrieking, sludgy purple monster that turned dragons and people into stone.
However, the conflict which followed between the humans fractured Kumandra into five provinces who now live as adversaries on the brink of war, with each wanting a piece of the stone. And when Raya is deceived by Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), the princess of Fang, the orb breaks and the Druun returns, leaving Raya alone as her father is turned into stone. With only a rumor that Sisu may have survived, Raya spends the next six years with Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk), her best friend and trusty steed, looking for the last dragon, with the hope that she can reunite the gem shards and restore peace to Kumandra once again.
This is a Disney film so it’s no major shock to say the lead is driven by the loss of a parent. And with a giant pill bug mammal creature, a criminal baby (voiced by Thalia Tran) and her band of monkeys, an orphaned boy (voiced by Izaac Wang) who runs his own dinner cruise business, and a strong-silent-type guard (voiced by Benedict Wong) joining Raya and Sisu’s mission, the cast of Disney’s latest animated feature may seem a bit too crowded to develop most of them. Although there’s great humor in the group scenes, with each character grieving for family members, the shared sense of loss and way it brings them together is powerful.
Like most of their films, this one is ultimately saved not so much by its plot, but by how it makes you feel. And if you’re going to solely judge the film on how it made you feel, Disney definitely has another winner on their hands. With mankind’s avarice having sparked the creation of the Druun and destruction of the dragon orb, the film is ultimately a story about a woman who has lost her ability to trust others.
With shades of Mulan and Moana, the character of Raya is toughened up by tragedy and begins the film from a much sadder and more cynical place. Her problem is that the world came crashing down after she trusted the wrong person, so there is no incentive to put her faith in others. We can all relate to this situation. Placing our trust in someone makes us vulnerable. Being vulnerable opens us up to being taken advantage of. After someone hurts us by taking advantage, it’s hard to trust anyone else. Once you stop trusting, you wall yourself off from the people worth depending on. It’s a dangerous cycle because a meaningful relationship won’t blossom before you plant seeds of trust.
Thankfully, she isn’t jaded and hardened either or doesn’t need self-confidence or romantic love. She appreciates the beauty of her world and all its breath-taking wonders. And even though this character’s biggest flaw is her inability to trust, Raya’s empathetic enough to take several quirky strangers under her wing.
Surprisingly, far more intriguing is Raya’s sworn enemy, the treacherous Fang princess Namaari, with whom she has unfinished business. Their enmity gives the film a fierce, complicated emotional dynamic of a sort that’s still rare in the Disney universe, particularly between women. Their heated expressions of rage and mutual loathing find a cool contrast in the funny, pure-hearted Sisu, who at one point transforms into an old woman to blend in with Raya’s posse, an experience that grants her a dispiriting new awareness of the human capacity for deception and betrayal.
Posing the question at the heart of the film – if people at odds can ever learn to trust one another, let alone lay down their lives for one another, and submit to the realization that their fates are ultimately entwined. There are certainly worse lessons a film could impart under present circumstances, and the filmmakers ponder it here with disarming sincerity and seriousness.
Without a doubt, the film’s writers and directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada‘s vision is an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations, and the specific pan-Asian details are amusing even when they brush up gently against stereotype. Nevertheless, they put the animators to the test as the pic journey spans several different landscapes, each one more stunning than the last. We visit arid deserts, dense jungles, snow-covered forests, bustling markets, and regal palaces, each packed with sumptuous visuals.
Even the thrilling fight sequences are expertly choreographed, and every kick, punch, and swing of the sword has a sense of weight behind it. The film’s combat looks more impressive than many of the poorly edited fight sequences in most live-action films these days. While not a musical, the score by James Newton Howard also adds a lot of magic to the film.
Voice performance wise, Kelly Marie Tran does a phenomenal job embodying Raya’s character, while Awkwafina is probably the funniest Disney sidekick since Robin Williams’s Genie. The remaining cast consisting of Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Izaac Wang, Lucille Soong, Ross Butler, Patti Harrison, Thalia Tran and Alan Tudyk also do well. On the whole, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is just another simple yet imaginative Disney adventure, which provides light-hearted fun, while delivering some important life lessons.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 107 minutes