Review: Raya and The Last Dragon
At a time when the world couldn't seem more divided about what to believe, where a consensus seems to be a rarity, we get a daring entry into Disney's animation legacy in Raya and the Last Dragon. Here is a film that makes a case for coming together, trusting our supposed enemies, and putting the common good above factional division.
I am interested in seeing how people will respond to that kind of message but make no doubt, the film is a stunning and beautiful piece of animation. It features thrilling action, ambitious world-building, and a great sense of representation in it. While it has some tonal inconsistencies, Raya and the Last Dragon is consistently entertaining.
Written by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, the plot is complex yet never hard to follow. I will do my best to summarize here. Five hundred years ago a plague of inky creatures known as the Druun turned the people and dragons of Kumandra to stone. They were barely stopped by Sisu, the last dragon, who put the last remaining dragon magic into a gemstone, stopping the Druun and returning people to their natural state.
Kumandra then split into five provinces, named for different parts of a dragon. When one of these factions tries to steal the gemstone, it shatters and awakens the Druun. Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) who tried to bring people together again is turned to stone. His daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) begins to hunt for Sisu (Awkwafina). Along her way, she puts together a crew that includes Boun (Izaac Wang), an orphan who runs a restaurant on a boat; a con-artist infant and her simian assistants; and warrior Tong (Benedict Wong) who is the last soldier of his faction Spine. As Raya and her crew find pieces of the stone, Sisu unlocks new powers once possessed by her sibling dragons.
Raya and the Last Dragon is unique in its representation. It features female leads in all the major roles. The cast is diverse and appropriate for the tale. However, the film often feels like a bunch of borrowed ideas rolled into a fresh package. It has elements of Indiana Jones, Brave, and How To Train Your Dragon among many others. Tonally, it shifts around from a serious tone to bathroom humor. Sisu is a character somewhat modeled after the genie from Aladdin, Robin Williams version to be exact. She is dropped into a fantasy film that can feel as serious and epic as Lord of the Rings. These two vibes never mesh all that well even if there are some fun moments thanks to Awkwafina's voice work.
Still, the lack of love story and musical numbers is refreshing here. The animation is often breathtaking. The lore is strong and the action scenes are generally clever and exciting to watch. Plus, the film's message is a good one. All that said, Raya and the Last Dragon is a winning entry into Disney's canon.