The latest in Disney’s “pick a culture and run with it” series, Raya and the Last Dragon is an action-packed non-musical adventure steeped in Southeast Asian myths. Stylized and propulsive, the film’s strength comes from its characters and martial arts battles moreso than a somewhat basic fantasy plot.
As we are told in a dense 2D animated prologue, the land of Kumandra, home to mythical dragons as well as humans, was once threatened by hydrophobic cloud monsters known as Druun who turn whatever they touch to stone. The dragons combined their powers to eradicate the Druun, turning to stone permanently but leaving behind a magical orb known as the Dragon Stone. The humans fought and separated into five tribes. Five hundred years later, the princess of the Heart tribe, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), is a battle-ready teenager who has sworn to protect the Stone at all costs. Her father (Daniel Dae Kim) wishes to reunite the tribes and bring Kumandra together again with a feast. Unfortunately, the princess of the Fang tribe, Namaari (Gemma Chan), betrays Raya. All hell breaks loose, the Stone is shattered, and each tribe absconds with a peace, turning most of the land’s population to stone. Six years pass, and Raya is on her own, searching for the fabled last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to fix the stone and save her father and her people.
The previous paragraph covers about the fifteen minutes of the film, so you can imagine how jam-packed the rest of it is. Raya and Sisu travel from town to town, picking up companions and Dragon Stone shards along the way. Though it feels like we trot out this line with every film, our protagonist is not a standard Disney princess. Raya has been hardened by her experiences, unwilling to trust anyone and always ready to throw down. Sisu just wants everyone to get along and trust one another, but Raya doesn’t believe such a thing is possible. By making friends from each tribe, including a child restaurateur and a con artist baby, Raya starts to open up.
I’m not the biggest fan of Sisu’s design, which places a standard Disney face on a lovely, fuzzy water dragon, but she spends a lot of the film disguised as a human that looks exactly like Awkwafina, so I guess it works out. It’s an extremely toyetic design, I’ll give it that, which I assume will counteract the lack of box office success Raya will have during the pandemic. And while I appreciate the story’s focus on trust and compassion over violence, I do miss the days when we were guaranteed a gruesome villain death at the end of a Disney film. Remember when Prince Eric impales Ursula with a shipwreck? We need to bring that back. Not that I wanted Raya to kill her friend-turned-rival Namaari, but you know what I’m saying. I do think Raya is the first Disney Princess to get punched right in the face, so that’s not nothing.
I don’t feel like I need to recommend Disney movies with my reviews – they’re inescapable, especially when most studios are punting buzzy releases down the road. I just like to stay caught up on what this cultural behemoth has deemed worthy of release. Raya and the Last Dragon is a lot of fun, and manages to avoid tired tropes of the genre, but I don’t know if it’s worth the $30 premium unless you have kids who will watch it a hundred times. I guess that’s the real audience though, so go for it. Otherwise, you can wait for it to show up for “free” in about 90 days.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Dir. Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada
In theaters and available on Disney Plus for $30 (!!!) Friday, 3/5
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