The reliable ‘Disney Magic’ formula is in place but given an appropriate shot in the arm with the studio’s visually flamboyant, culturally expansive newest, Raya and the Last Dragon. It is a welcome return of fan favorite Kelly Marie Tran, who had largely disappeared from public view after harassment by misogynistic Star Wars fan boys. In the title role, she voices the character with nuance in a whole spectrum of emotions. It also features Awkwafina as the last dragon, Sisu, Gemma Chan as Namaari, Daniel Day Kim as Benja, Sandra Oh as Virana, and Benedict Wong as Tong. Beyond the endlessly gorgeous visuals, it is the vocal interpretations that bring the film to a compelling level, and raise the plot, which, though it offers exciting action, a fresh perspective, and Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, is ultimately ‘Disney business as usual’.
In the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons joyfully live together since history began. When an evil force called the Druun threaten to destroy everything, the dragons sacrifice themselves to save humanity. Meanwhile, Kumandra’s tribes are split into 5 factions, which build their own societies over the next 500 years. Though the Heart faction holds the Dragon Gem, all the tribes secretly want the gem to secure longterm safety from the Druun for their people.
Benja (Kim) is chief of the Heart lands, and together with his daughter Raya (Tran), they are the Guardians of the Dragon Gem. When the Druun resurface and the gem is broken, Benja is turned to stone, along with most of humanity. It’s up to lone warrior Raya to seek out the mythological last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), restore the world, and bring the many people trapped in body-prisons of stone back to life. Together, they forge ahead in a plot to save their land and bring Kumandra back into harmony. Of course the factions have other plans, and mistrust is rampant between them. This mistrust is best displayed in Namaari (Chan), of the Fang tribe. A powerful warrior and daughter of Fang Chief Virana (Oh), she is Raya’s equal as well as her arch nemesis. Helping Raya is a collection of quirky characters all broken from the loss of their families, including street kid Boun, Little Noi, a toddler with three monkey-catfish creatures in tow, and a gentle giant named Tong (Wong) who grieves for his stone-bound family.
All that sounds convoluted, and it sort of is, except at the base of it, screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim have stuck to a formula proven successful at Disney, as exampled by Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, and Inside Out. A plucky, able female protagonist, who questions her own power and has lost her ability to trust, ask for help, or believe in herself, must rise above her fears, and collaborate with friends to fix the world. However, Nguyen and Lim incorporate story elements and personality traits in the characters that are specific to Southeast Asian culture. Lim, who is known for her work on Crazy Rich Asians, explains, “In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders, and warriors. And leaders of their realms. And also, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water. In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. The Nagas and strong females are present within a lot of the cultures in Southeast Asia, so we knew those were threads that would really resonate within the film.”
Visually, Raya and the Last Dragon rivals any and all other recent Disney films. The 5 realms are designed to look completely different from each other, yet all have qualities reminiscent of Southeast Asian landscapes. Two groups of filmmakers made research trips throughout Southeast Asia—including Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore. They learned the similarities in countries that they could use for the invented locale of Kumandra, so that viewers across the region would recognize elements of their culture. Production Designer Paul Felix expresses the connection to legend and culture represented in all aspects of life across many Southeast Asian countries in the colors, costumes, and elements of the landscapes shown throughout the film. All the department heads are clearly focused on bringing Southeast Asian aesthetics to bear including choices specific to character, like names, clothing, and the food they ate. With a region of 11 countries of over 650 million people, it must have been a vast undertaking. Though only those who have a cultural connection to the region can say for sure if they succeed, as an Anglo-American audience member, I found every aspect of the visual storytelling stunning and compelling to watch.
Raya and the Last Dragon is definitely a fun, exciting animated feature, with most entertainment found in the vocal interpretations of Tran’s edgy, cynical, yet emotionally wounded Raya, and Awkwafina’s Sisu, which captures the self-deprecating eternal optimist’s water dragon spirit perfectly. With so much time of the hands of housebound kids and their harried parents, this film will offer some great family time together in the dark. That is probably equally true for kidless adults looking for a break from pandemic worries.
4 out of 5 stars.