Raya and the Last Dragon, 2021.
Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, and John Ripa.
Featuring the voice talents of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, and Ross Butler.
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.
Trust is the theme at the forefront of Raya and the Last Dragon, which is welcome considering animated features generally work better for children and adults when there is something tangible to grapple with in their own ways. It’s safe to say that rings true here for the quartet of directors behind this latest feature from Disney (Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, and John Ripa, putting their heads together on a script from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim with an assortment of other names credited to the story itself) who at first seem to be entering the groan-worthy territory of telling a tale about the importance of setting aside differences and accepting one another. Of course, that’s always noble but also a message that feels a bit wrongheaded given recent events going on in America. At the same time, the film was put into production long before then so is more a victim of circumstance than anything when it comes to that aspect.
That’s why it’s crucial that Raya and the Last Dragon uses that tired message as a building block to explore more thought-provoking concepts such as trust. The eponymous Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who holds her own in her first leading role) starts off the adventure as naïve. Following some fantastical exposition setting up the fictional Southeast Asian world of Kumandra as a place dragons once freely roamed before saving the world from a great evil, we learn that the land has split up into five different factions and that Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) watches over the gem left over from the titular last dragon, which also functions as the only remaining source of magic in this world. There is also a get-together coming up where all of the houses are set to meet and focus on staying on the same page.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to say that Raya (also in part due to Benja’s worldviews) lets an overly friendly girl her age named Namaari (Gemma Chan) a bit too close to the stone, subsequently causing havoc inside the underground location and warring factions that no longer even know what the word unity means. Nevertheless, the gem is destroyed and the story flashes forward six years where Kumandra is now just an absolute wasteland as the destruction of the gem also caused the evil Droons to re-emerge (they look like orbs of darkness that glow purple) who are capable of turning to stone anyone they touch. Moreover, it’s the power-hungry nature of people that has primarily caused this apocalypse.
That’s a lot of story (possibly a bit too much in the first act), so thankfully Raya and the Last Dragon slows its roll to something more character-focused on the now young adult who is both scouring the land (Riding her now fully grown roly-poly like a motorcycle across vast landscapes, which is awesome and amusing) in pursuit of a myth that says the legendary dragon Sisu is still alive while encountering new characters with her trust baggage. Every faction now has one broken piece of the gem, meaning that part of her quest will naturally involve collecting them all which is somewhat formulaic but at least allows time spent at a wide variety of elemental environments that are technologically dazzling.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that Sisu is alive (duh, she’s voiced by Awkwafina and has been a heavy part of the marketing), presented as a combination of the usual slapstick Disney sidekick humor to a useful friend with the wisdom. Not only is Awkwafina hilarious doing the voice, but one of the gem fractions grants Sisu the ability to shapeshift into a human meaning we also get to see a partial digital recreation of the talented actor as well as a brightly colored and radiant dragon. Shenanigans ensue as they search the other lands for gem pieces while trying to keep Sisu’s existence a secret.
Again, the real story here involves Raya, who is now incapable of trusting anyone, trying to let go of that guard but not without caution. There’s a tricky balance to the message Disney is sending here that is as tricky as the nature of trust itself; who do you trust, when do you take the first step in trusting someone, and trust operating as a two-way street. It’s not just about the supporting characters either, as Raya will have to rise up to the challenge of understanding Namaari and learning how to again trust someone that may have done something wrong but now has changed. It’s not an easy story to tell, and I’m not entirely sure it’s pulled off with laser precision (Namaari feels underwritten and there needs to be more to her story for this to fully work), but daring to base an entire animated feature around trust is a gutsy move that proves to be rewarding.
Aside from having a decent amount of laughs for children and adults alike, Raya and the Last Dragon is visually dazzling whether vibrant dragons are shining across the screen or magic is altering the world on a grand scale (there’s a scene towards the end that seems like an impossible nightmare to pull off for the digital artists that they have stunningly executed). It also boasts some fight scenes (both hand-to-hand and with weapons) that are quite hard-hitting for a Disney movie and a joy to watch for the acrobatics alone. The voice ensemble also rises to the occasion, with Awkwafina coming across as a natural for playing silly cartoon characters. It’s a simple story told effectively with imagination, an important theme, and artistic splendor.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com