The difficulty of appreciating a film like “Raya and the Last Dragon” does not lie with the animation or the characters. Both are strong aspects of the film, which opens in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access today.
The challenge isn’t with the fact that I was not too fond of the movie. It is well-positioned to capture the imagination and hearts of the young and the old. It reminds us to cherish the best parts of life, not waste time on the things we can’t control and, it has an interesting feud behind its animated façade.
Façade . . . is that even an appropriate word to describe the adventures of Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”)? The character has a good heart and starts by trying to be a unifying force in the film. Her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), is the chief of the Heart Land. His wisdom guides her.
Akin to the woven tapestry of Disney’s animated films, something they’ve got a lock on, the script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim uses the central conflict to help define Raya’s destiny.
For 500 years, the various factions of Kumandra have lived, divided, but in peace. Benja and Raya, guardians of an orb that keeps a destructive force at bay, believe that the best way forward for all the peoples of Kumandra is to bring the factions together. This includes Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior princess from the Fang Land. The film opens toward an overture of peace, which rapidly turns into tragedy.
Interestingly, Nguyen and Lim define Raya’s journey by coming to terms with her situation, a hallmark Disney moment. More importantly, in a moment of self-reflection, Raya also determines how to solve her problem best. Many of the situations presented in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” though, are truly happenstance.
Her heart is in the right place.
That happenstance doesn’t occur without the belief in what she is trying to accomplish, something her father instilled in her, wasn’t for the right cause; her heart is in the journey even if she doesn’t fully comprehend her situation.
Enter Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina, who happens to be the last dragon of her kind. There’s an implied cynicism in Sisu’s view of the world, partially from being confined for 500 years, methinks, as she tries to impart her own wisdom on Raya. Awkwafina’s energy is felt throughout the film as a very life-affirming balance to Kelly Marie Tran’s stoicism. There is a very definite yin-yang element between the two characters that push and pull at one another that works well.
The secondary characters, Tong (Benedict Wong), Boun (Izaac Wang), Little Noi, and even Tuk Tuk, Raya’s trusty steed voiced by Alan Tudyk, all add a levity and brevity to a story that runs a bit too long.
The animation really captivates your attention; the characters will tug at your heartstrings. The story really makes you pine for more faith in fellow man when all is said and done. However, the story tries to latch on to its central thesis a bit too early in the film, and there’s not enough filler, no matter how gorgeous that animation is, to keep the story’s momentum up.
Reflecting on the yin and yang relationship between Raya and Sisu, that give and take, there is enough goodwill between the characters that the film’s end serves as a logical bookend. There is respect for each of the characters, their personal journeys. Without it, “Raya and the Last Dragon” would be ‘just another Disney animated film,’ which it manages to escape barely, form, and function intact.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premier Access starting March 5.
- Raya and the Last Dragon