Raya and the Last Dragon is a tremendously entertaining and important film for 2021.
The script, by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, has so many layers beyond a simple fetch adventure quest. It covers community unity, broken trust, the sense of loss and isolation from family and friends. The latter feels especially timely as the world is still dealing with a pandemic that has forced separation in many instances while reinforcing the importance of togetherness.
That doesn’t mean that Raya is a boring, too serious for its own good film. Hardly. It stacks up as one of Disney’s grandest adventures that just so happens to be animated. Raya feels like a mix of Lord of the Rings, Willow and The NeverEnding Story while still coming off as its own original entry in the Hall of Fame adventure epic genre.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, The Croods: A New Age) recalls the incident six years ago that led to the world nearly coming undone and cast in darkness by a malevolent force that was only repelled thanks to the heroic sacrifice of the dragons, which peacefully co-existed with humans.
In the ensuring fallout, the five dragon clans warred to gain control over the last remnant of the heroic dragon, Sisu. Only Raya’s father (Daniel Dae Kim) has hope of uniting the clans to achieve a spiritual oneness that could prove just as powerful as the dragons. It’s a good idea that fails and Raya’s takeaway is she can’t trust people.
After gracefully enduring incredibly ridiculous treatment from the brain-depraved subsection of Star Wars fandom for daring to interject some needed diversity to the franchise, it’s nice to hear Tran in a film that celebrates what others would try and tear down. The next step naturally is getting her back in front of the camera in prominent roles instead of just voicing characters in animated films.
Over the next few years, Raya goes on a solo quest, save her pet Tuk Tuk, to find a means to restore Sisu (Awkwafina) and end the wave of darkness. Sisu isn’t anything like Raya expected though and the two form an quick bond as they continue Raya’s adventure.
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Following her critically acclaimed dramatic turn in The Farewell, it was disappointing to hear Awkwafina occasionally lapse into her culturally appropriating ‘urban accent.’ I was hoping she’d evolve beyond that with her performances as she doesn’t need that shtick any longer especially since her voice is so unique in an animated film it’s not necessary.
Along the way, Raya and Sisu encounter some unlikely allies from the respective clans in a young captain Boun (Izaac Wang), a not so innocent baby (Thalia Tran) and a brave warrior, Tong (Benedict Wong, Avengers: Endgame). They make for a fun mix of characters that manage to avoid the usual tropes of the adventure genre.
Raya and Sisu will need the help as they try to stay one step ahead of Raya’s longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan, Captain Marvel), and the heart of Raya’s issues of distrust. The film tackles this subject in a meaningful way where Namaari is not a cliché villain because she opposes Raya while it’s continually stated how Raya’s trust issues are doing more harm for her than good.
After a year where some political ‘leaders’ incited violence against Asian Americans, Raya arrives in theaters and Disney+ at an ideal time as a means of fighting back against ignorant and stupid racist rhetoric.
It seems like advertisers and companies are finally starting to recognize black people and it’s equally important that other minorities (Asians, Latinos, Muslim, etc.) are given a greater spotlight. Not at the expense of another minority, but an overdue seat at the table or in this case animated films.
Mulan can’t be the only character holding it down for animated Asian films with a woman in the lead in the same way Black Panther can’t be the one and done response for more black superheroes.
The visuals and costume designs are spectacular. Lighting effects and action sequences are very sharp. Character designs are also stellar and Raya has some very cool alterations to her outfit that certainly classify her as a formidable kick-tail hero.
Raya and the Last Dragon is one of those really good films that will probably be viewed even more favorably upon repeated viewing.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Disney
Check out the Fashion Doll Raya on Amazon.