Disney’s growing canon of princesses of colour – which include Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Esmeralda, and Moana – has a new member in Raya (superbly voiced by Kelly Marie Tran)! In what has been hailed as a groundbreaking moment for the storied studio, its latest animated feature doesn’t just introduce its first Southeast Asian characters – writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, alongside their creative team, went to great lengths to accurately represent the region in terms of food, architecture and character design. Now, while we applaud the effort to nail the cultural details, well-intentioned representation might be wasted if the film itself isn’t worth watching. So how does Raya and the Last Dragon fare?
Brilliantly! (But not perfectly.)
This fantasy epic is an utterly thrilling adventure underpinned by a strong emotional core. Buoyed by breathtaking fight sequences, stunning visuals, ambitious world-building, excellent humour, complex characters and a star-studded voice cast – Raya proves to be a wildly entertaining, all-ages fable about acceptance, found families, and the power of trust.
The film opens with a zippy, millennia-spanning history to the fictional country of Kumandra. 500 years ago, plague creatures known as the Druun stalked the land (where humans and dragons lived together in peace and harmony) turning people and dragons alike into stone. They were stopped only when Sisu, the last remaining dragon, sacrificed herself by using her energy to craft a magical gem. Subsequently the country splintered, with each of its clans breaking off into five distinct lands – Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart. The Heart clan has long held on to Sisu’s stone, which draws the ire of the other clans.
Fast forward and we meet tween Raya and her single dad Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), who have been tasked with protecting Sisu’s gem. Raya is well-trained as a warrior and takes her duties seriously, while her father is instead focused on reuniting Kumandra, convinced that decades of strife and tension can be healed. Unfortunately, Benja is gravely mistaken. After being double-crossed by fellow princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) and accidentally summoning the return of the Druun, Raya loses everything – her father, most of the shattered gem, and any hope that Kumandra could ever be reunified.
Six years later, we find our titular heroine (accompanied by a giant pill bug sidekick named Tuk Tuk!) compelled by sorrow and embarking on a quest to find the last dragon and save the world from the sinister Druuns. Raya does manage to awaken the spirit of Sisu, but she hilariously discovers that the water dragon is actually a ditzy teen (voiced with awkward perfection by Awkwafina). It’s a highly amusing gag (never meet your heroes, right?) that while jarring initially, pays off with big laughs that offer relief from a very dark story.
The centuries of mythologizing Sisu’s brave final act seems to have skimmed over her personality. But despite her harebrained nature, Sisu is the only one who really understands the power of someone who just wants to help, even if they’re not necessarily equipped to do things on their own. It’s a lesson that Raya and many other grief-stricken Kumandrans will have to learn soon enough. While it seems like a joke at first, Sisu is an essential part of the film’s messaging about the humanity behind heroism.
Together, the pair set out to find the rest of the gem bits and join them together. Along the way, they pick up zany new pals, from the congee-slinging kid ship captain Boun (Isaac Wang) to the gruff warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), to even a baby con artist (Thalia Tran) and her monkey friends. It’s a wacky assemblage, but Raya and the Last Dragon is so rooted in emotion, that this motley crew is capable of kicking up big laughs and more than a few tears. As the group moves through the gorgeously colorful Kumandra (directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada do a great job of giving each province different looks) – the adventure keeps the audience engaged and enthralled each step of the way.
There’s neither a love story nor musical numbers here, and neither are missed – this is a film brimming over with thought-provoking themes, dazzling action and eye-popping fantasy. A particular standout is Namaari, not so much a villain as a fallible human with complex motivations of her own. Her relationship with Raya is the crux of the film’s messaging. As kids, they were joined by their love for dragons, and while that affection has been twisted over the years, it may still hold the key for solving their respective problems. If only they can see past their anger and differences. We live in an age where people seem stuck in tribalistic divisions, so it’s rejuvenating to see a movie make a case for reaching out to our enemies and trusting them to put the common good above factional rivalry.
That being said, Raya and the Last Dragon’s lessons can feel repetitive and heavy handed at times. And this isn’t nearly the apex of Southeast Asian representation that Disney wishes it to be (especially with only one SEA voice in it’s large cast), falling far behind the beautiful specificity of films like Coco or Moana. Likewise, it’s blatant similarities to beloved cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra does the film no favours. Nevertheless, this is still a visually glorious, immensely enjoyable and transportive spectacle that should be embraced for the challenging things on its mind and hope for humanity in its heart.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be released in cinemas and streaming via Disney+ on Friday, March 5.