Genre: CG Animation
Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Alan Tudyk, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Ross Butler, Benedict Wong, Patti Harrison, Lucille Soong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran
Runtime: 1 hr 54 mins
Released By: Walt Disney
Opening Day: 5 March 2021
Synopsis: Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
Raya may not strike you as a Disney princess, so kudos to the Mouse House for trying to break its own mould and diversify its representation. Billed as its first Southeast Asian heroine, Raya gets a story which draws from a mash-up of our continent’s folklore – including water taxis, shrimp congee and naga (or semi-divine beings in Buddhism that can shapeshift between human and serpent form) – and sees her set out on a quest to unite five widely scattered pieces of a magical gemstone across the fictional land of Kumandra.
As we learn from a prologue, the land used to be one until the arrival of the Druun – shapeless, smoke-like monsters which turned people into stone – led to the noble sacrifice of a couple of benevolent dragons as well as the unfortunate fracture of the community thereafter. Each of the five tribes came to be named after the part of a dragon which they occupied on the map of the so-shaped territory: Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart. Raya hails from the kingdom of Heart, which is also tasked with protecting the magical gem which the last dragon Sisu had used to vanquish the Druun and restore those who had been turned to stone back to humans.
After an ill-fated attempt by Raja’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to reunite the five warring lands, the gem is shattered and the Druun are set free once again, thus setting the stage for Raya’s formative journey of courage, perseverance and most important of all, trust. Oh yes, as scripted by ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ screenwriter Adele Lim and Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen, trust is ultimately what forged the gem in the first place, and will be what is needed to restore it.
It is a powerful, poignant and resonating message, not least because those who know their Southeast Asian history will surely recall how countries such as Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos were still warring with each other in the last half-century; and here, Raya is called not just to trust the titular dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) whom she awakens, but also her sworn enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan), who had pretended to befriend her in order to steal the gem at Benja’s reunion session.
Raya’s quest takes her to each of the other four warring tribes in order to retrieve the part of the gem which they possess, allowing us to indulge in the beautifully animated landscapes of craggy deserts, floating markets, snowy bamboo forests and monumental temples. Some may no doubt criticise the depiction for not being culturally specific enough, but we would argue that the filmmakers had clearly done their homework and in order not to alienate a global audience whom this film is meant for had blended real-world details into a nonetheless richly realised fantasy land with clear Southeast Asian influences.
In fact, the film feels no need to oversell its representational elements, focusing instead on telling a story with universal appeal. Indeed, it is not hard to identify with Raya, a flawed but genuine heroine whose greatest battle is within herself; or for that matter, would it be difficult to embrace Sisu, whose abilities have been trumped up by myth and now has to prove her worth or die trying. Whereas Kelly Marie Tran brings Raya to life with pluck and determination, Awkwafina makes Sisu pop with sass, snark and humour, and the to-and-fro between the Asian American voice actresses makes the dynamic between Raya and Sidu among the best buddy comedy in recent years.
No Disney animation is complete without an ensemble of cute supporting characters – these include Raya’s part-pill bug, part-armadillo companion Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) which plays the role of both pet and transportation; the congee-slinging kid ship captain Boun (Isaac Wang); the gruff warrior Tong (Benedict Wong) from the land of Spine; and last but not least, a baby con artist and her trio of monkey friends from the land of Talon. Each is fused delightfully into the storytelling, and thanks to the smart scripting, adds plenty of humour and heart.
Just as wonderful is the action, comprising of vigorous sword fights and chase sequences snappily edited to James Newton Howard’s punchy soundtrack. Besides being a playwright, Nguyen is also a martial arts choreographer, and here helps define both Raya’s pencak silat style of fighting and Namaari’s Muay Thai style. It is thrilling stuff all right, and we dare say that the movie is consequently as much an action movie as it is a fantasy adventure.
So bravo to directors Don Hall (from Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’) and Carlos López Estrada (from ‘Bridgespotting’), who have crafted a dazzling fantasia which advances not just the Disney princess canon in new and exciting ways but also the studio’s mission of greater diversity. Any product intended for a global audience will inevitably have to tone down its cultural specificity in order to be universally relatable, so while some may criticise it for watering down its influences, we’d rather celebrate its ambition as well as its achievements. This is through and through a stirring adventure, gorgeously animated, and packed with an all-too relevant message of trust; in short, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is magical and must-see.
(As glorious a Disney animation as they come, 'Raya and the Last Dragon' is a stirring fantasy adventure of humour, heart and martial arts, gorgeously animated, and wears its Southeast Asian influences proudly)
Review by Gabriel Chong