Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ (pandemic trust issues: the movie)

Life imitates art imitates life.

Half a millennium ago, noble dragons sacrificed themselves to save the magical realm of Kumandra by banishing the Druun, “a mindless plague” that turns anyone touched to stone. The five lands of the realm — Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail — have endured hardships and grown apart ever since. It is believed fortune smiles upon Heart because it possesses the Dragon Gem, a sacred and coveted object whose power isn’t fully understood. Heart’s Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) seeks peace at a gathering of all five lands, intent upon leaving a better world for his daughter and would-be warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), but a betrayed trust in Namaari (Gemma Chan) results in the Dragon Gem being split into five pieces… and unleashing the Druun again upon the world. Years later with only pockets of civilization remaining, Raya nears the end of her quest to find the legendary last dragon who saved them before, Sisu (Awkwafina), and prays she can save them all again.

The tradition of Disney animated features and their spunky princesses are themselves the stuff of legend. Both admirable yet also a punchline, Ralph Breaks the Internet most recently and famously updated the princesses from assumed objects of admiration into a semi-self-aware squad of formidable capability (read: Disney’s in on the joke). Fresh off of their live-action Mulan remake, Raya (pronounced “rye-ah”) and the Last Dragon is this time inspired by Southeast Asian mythology and culture while still hampered by American pop culture and slang. The biggest change herein, however, isn’t a capable princess stepping up to the plate but a distinct lack of traditional romantic entanglement… and all that that implies. Are audiences ready for their lady protagonist evolving from “a girl worth fighting for” into “a girl fighting for worth?”

Setting aside the Disney (and Thanos) tradition of eliminating one of every main character’s parents — half the casting, twice the drama! — it’s easy to dismiss elements seemingly gleaned from obvious sources, including The Dark Crystal and Titan A.E. to Disney’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The bulk of this production was done from creators’ homes during a global pandemic, an epic feat of organization and technology itself. As the film unfolds, the self-contained plot elements stack into solid world-building, organically introduced with less info-dump than similar stories. Something amazing was created in spite of everything working against it, both mirroring and informing Raya’s story, a plea for trust and an inclusive celebration of differences. The result is emotional, entertaining, and powerful.

Disney storytellers often resort to pidgin linguistics when it comes to stories primarily in American English but set in places where such language is unlikely to be native — like every episode of classic “Star Trek.” It’s a shorthand that fast becomes second nature, although some slang is a wee bit anachronistic, which Disney can’t seem to help (here’s looking at you, “dragon nerd”). Fortunately, the rendered imagery is some of the best yet, whether a tight closeup or an atmospheric establishing shot, and the sound design is just as seamless along with the soundtrack. It may now be impossible to separate the visage of Sisu from the infectiously enthusiastic gravelly sass of Awkwafina, and Kelly Marie Tran voicing Raya’s prayer so full of need and hope is endearing to all but the most callous viewer. Additionally, Raya isn’t the best or even nicest person; she’s often smug, quick to anger and violence, and demands the trust of others she can’t find in herself — not exactly a traditional hero let alone Disney princess.

No man is an island… or more precisely, no person. As a lesson in the folly of self-isolation and turning one’s back to the world in the false hope danger will never reach your shores, there’s a lot of not-so subtle thinking that went into this. Moreover, trust isn’t easy, but someone has to take a chance for it to ever come about. Aside from these essential elements, Raya and the Last Dragon is a joy to watch with more to discover with each viewing, one that needed a theatrical release and deserves its chance in theaters as a re-release as soon as possible.

Raya and the Last Dragon is rated PG for some violence, action, thematic elements, and taking the first step… even when you’re not ready.

Four skull recommendation our of four

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