‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Combines Family-Friendly Fun With Magnificent Mythic Action
“Raya and the Last Dragon” hurtles into a grand adventure with pure abandon. It is a Disney movie with the studio’s trademark family-friendly style, but its attitude takes inspiration from Asian action cinema and classic, storybook myth. The plot is both simple and complex enough, bringing together magnificent visuals with some fairly direct messaging. In many ways it continues the growing maturity of themes and characters being explored by digital animation. Popcorn fun is all over this movie in spades, but none of it is ever shallow. Losing family and the sting of betrayal are heavy topics of discussion, but they come across strongly in this tale involving roaming warriors, savage plagues that transform people into stone, and colorful dragons.
The film opens in a setting worthy of dystopia or even “Star Wars,” as Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) wanders a barren landscape on top of Tuk Tuk, her trusted shelled companion. Raya lives in what used to be the harmonious world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived side by side. But when a plague arrived in the form of monsters called the Druun, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the world, leaving behind a single dragon stone and Sisu (Awkwafina), the last of their kind. The peoples of Kumandra meanwhile broke up into various clans, all taking their name from a part of dragon anatomy. Raya belongs to the Heart, led by her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who seeks to reunite Kumandra into what it once was. The Fang have other ideas and after a betrayal by their princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan), the dragon stone breaks into several pieces which are quickly stolen by the other clans. This re-unleashes the Druun, who go on a rampage that leaves Raya on her own, seeking the stone pieces and Sisu, while being pursued by Namaari.
As much as Disney has been investing heavily in live-action material, “Raya and the Last Dragon” once again demonstrates the exhilarating freedom of animation. Even more than last year’s “Mulan” remake, this film does justice to its sources of inspiration. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada combine unique sensibilities. Hall has worked on Disney hits like “Big Hero 6” and “Moana,” while Lopez has more of a visually rich TV background, having worked on trippy shows like “Legion.” With the dynamic screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, Hall and Estrada craft with the animation team a unique kind of hybrid. It’s a magnificent adventure story with lush visuals inspired by Southeast Asia, told with the semi-western feel from movies in the tradition of Japan’s Akira Kurosawa. With her eyes shaded by a wide-brimmed straw hat, Raya could be a warrior out of “The Seven Samurai.” Yet the plot could be taken out of any society’s mythology, where heroes must embark on dangerous treks to fight off a looming, monstrous threat. Kumandra is imagined as a vast world of deserts and snow-capped landscapes, with island cities such as where the Fang live. Another city is made of buildings on stilts over water, and you can’t trust anyone, even babies who team up with cute monkeys to hustle or rob strangers. Victims of the Druun are liable to be found strewn along the deserts and gardens of Kumandra as haunting, stone statues. Along her journey to find the other pieces of the dragon stone, Raya will find Sisu, voiced with endearingly goofy energy by Awkwafina, the last remaining dragon, who happens to be a beautifully-designed “water dragon.”
Sisu isn’t just some colorful animal companion for Raya, she already has Tuk Tuk for that. What she really does is fuel the film’s key theme, which is the difficulty of developing trust in a cruel world. Raya first meets Namaari when they are both young girls, just as Benja tries to reunite the peoples of Kumandra. It begins like a typical Disney moment where characters instantly become friends. Then Namaari betrays Raya and the dragon stone is broken. Lingering throughout the narrative is how this moment has left lasting emotional scars in Raya, along with how this betrayal resulted in the Druun once again ravaging the world. Narratively this is a wonderful way of embedding grown-up subject matter. We all suffer moments that teach us harsh lessons. Raya has learned to watch her back, perhaps a little too closely. When she finds a kid orphaned by the plague, Boun (Izaac Wang), who runs his own boat restaurant, Raya wonders if the delicious soup he cooks might be poisoned. Sisu is the complete opposite. Her sense of being too trusting comes from how her close-knit dragon family entrusted her with the stone that stopped the original Druun attack 500 years ago. She tries to convince Raya that all it takes is some kindness and friendliness to resolve conflicts. Why try to battle the Fang when just offering them a present might do the trick? The screenplay intelligently finds the balance in both worldviews. Yes, one should soberly proceed in life and be careful, but that is no reason to live in constant fear and resentment. Some of the best Disney films, from “Bambi” to “The Lion King,” have told good stories by treating young audiences like people. Life can get dark. Another companion Raya picks up along the way, the very warrior-like Tong (Benedict Wong), wants revenge because his entire family was lost, turned to stone by the Druun. Also important is how Raya and Namaari are written to hold the story on their own, without typical male heroes jumping in to guide or rescue them.
Many great lessons indeed but packaged in an adrenaline adventure. “Raya and the Last Dragon” proceeds from one exciting moment to another. Sisu becomes a shapeshifter that brings more chortling comic relief, while Namaari chases after Raya with a pack of threatening, giant wolves. None of it are superficial gimmicks. Every moment advances the drama with grand style. The final act is the kind of titanic battle we expect, with Raya walking up the steps of a great citadel, sword drawn, and dragons emerging out of rivers in spectacular colors. The music by James Newton Howard never gets too bombastic but is quite refined and atmospheric. And just look at the intricate, breathless detail given to every frame, from the rain pouring down Raya’s hat to the garden where Sisu finds her dragon relatives, not cast eternally (maybe?) in stone. Like “Soul,” this is a film that proves Disney is working hard to expand its palette and diversity. “Raya and the Last Dragon” has the laughs and tear-jerker moments we’ve come to expect and love but tries for more and succeeds on a supremely fun scale.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” releases March 5 on Disney+ Premium Access and in select theaters.