Raya and the Last Dragon
Disney's latest animated delight pairs breathtaking imagery and lively voice work with a moving story of hope.
Featuring a vibrant animated spectacle that heroes vivid green and blue hues, a rousing central figure who is never a stock-standard Disney princess and lively voice work from an all-star cast, Raya and the Last Dragon boasts plenty of highlights. The Mouse House's new all-ages-friendly release also embraces southeast Asian culture with the same warm hug that Moana gave Polynesia and Pixar's Coco sent Mexico's way — and it's always detailed, organic, inclusive and thoughtful, and never tokenistic. But perhaps its biggest strength, other than the pitch-perfect vocal stylings of Awkwafina as the playful, mystical half of the film's title, is its timing. Disney first announced the feature back in August 2019, so the company can't have known what the world would suffer through from early 2020 onwards, of course. But a hopeful movie about a planet ravaged by a destructive plague and blighted by tribalism — and a feature that champions the importance of banding together to make things right, too — really couldn't arrive at a more opportune moment.
COVID-19 has no place in Raya and the Last Dragon; however, as the picture's introductory preamble explains, a virus-like wave of critters called the Druun has wreaked havoc. Five hundred years earlier, the world of Kumandra was filled with humans and dragons living together in harmony, until the sinister force hit. Now, only the realm's two-legged inhabitants remain — after their furry friends used their magic to create the dragon gem, which saved everyone except themselves. That's the only status quo that Raya (voiced by Star Wars' Kelly Marie Tran) has ever known. Her entire existence has also been lived out in a divided Kumandra, with different groups staking a claim to various areas. With her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, Always Be My Maybe), she hails from the most prosperous region, Heart, and the duo hold out hope that they can reunite the warring lands. Alas, when they bring together their fellow leaders for a peaceful summit, Raya's eagerness to trust Namaari (Gemma Chan, Captain Marvel), the daughter of a rival chief, ends with the Druun on the rampage once again.
Directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa (both Disney art and animation department veterans), and screenwriters Qui Nguyen (Dispatches From Elsewhere) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) mightn't have had much of a tale to tell if Raya and Namaari had gotten on without a hitch from the get-go. But the latter's early betrayal of the former, and her quest to steal the dragon gem, serves more than a key storytelling function. This is a movie about believing not just in yourself, but in others, and it doesn't shy away from the reality that trusting anyone comes with the chance of peril and pain — especially in fraught times where the world has taken on an every-person-for-themselves mentality and folks are dying (or being turned to stone, which is the Druun's modus operandi). If the narrative hadn't been willing to make this plain again and again, including when it picks up six years later as Raya tries to reverse the devastation caused by Namaari's actions, Raya and the Last Dragon wouldn't feel as genuinely affecting.
Rolling around desert wastelands on her giant armadillo-meets-pill bug Tuk Tuk, Raya's mission involves collecting every part of the now-fractured gem — which has been scattered across Kumandra — as well as investigating a legend about Awkwafina's Sisu. It's rumoured that the aquamarine-coloured dragon still lives, and Raya is as intent on finding it as she is on piecing her homeland back together. Tracking down the perennially optimistic Sisu actually happens quickly (it's right there in the movie's buddy-comedy moniker, after all) and the film is all the better for it. So giddily buoyant that she's like a teenage girl, the friendly creature becomes the supportive, exuberant cheerleader encouraging Raya to be her better self and to see the best in others, and their match-up — and the meeting of stellar vocals behind them — works a treat.
That said, there is an episodic feel to the pair's jumps from place to place, as they enlist the help of a baby pickpocket, plus orphaned ten-year-old and boat restaurant proprietor Boun (Izaac Wang, Good Boys) and lonely warrior Tong (Benedict Wong, The Personal History of David Copperfield). If you're cynical or even just practical, you can also see how all these characters and settings could give rise to their own toys, other merchandise and spinoffs, too. And yet, this is always a deeply moving feature, thanks to its commitment to recognising the risks as well as the rewards of placing your faith in others, its warmly beating heart, and the complexities of Raya and Namaari's relationship — which is never straightforward, and puts the one-note rivalries between young women so often seen in live-action high school-set movies to shame. A familiar Disney formula is at work underneath, and noticeably, but those easily spotted aspects provide Raya and the Last Dragon with its skeleton rather than driving every detail into well-worn territory.
Also hitting the mark: the film's comic notes, especially through Awkwafina's voice performance; its balance of world-building fantasy and epic adventure, and of both hopeful and melancholy tones; and the way it equally plays like a fable and also feels ideally suited to the current moment. Tran, Chan and the rest of the movie's cast, including Sandra Oh (Killing Eve) as Namaari's mother, are just as wonderful, and the feature's finale leaves an imprint. Amid these fine-tuned elements and the always-breathtaking imagery also lingers another message, and one that's just as important as the flick's missive of unity. Clouds of familiarity linger over Raya and the Last Dragon, but they never hide the movie's many charms — because judging something based on its most obvious traits is ill-advised within this touching tale, and when it comes to the film as a whole as well.
Raya and the Dragon is screening in NZ cinemas from Thursday, March 4, and will also be available to view via Disney+ with Premier Access (so you'll pay $34.99 extra for it, on top of your usual subscription fee) from Friday, March 5. It'll hit Disney+ without any extra fee on June 4.
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