A world torn apart by greed over natural resources? Huh. SOUNDS FAMILIAR. Disney’s latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, keeps its story relatively simple in crafting a world that was once united and that has since been destroyed by people’s lust for power. Is it sometimes too simple? Sure! But at least Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t get bogged down, as Mulan and Soul both did, in somewhat grandiose, high-minded concepts about the singularity of the soul and the shared energy of the universe and the utilitarianism of the body. Raya and the Last Dragon almost feels like a throwback to the adventurer movies of old Disney, to films like Aladdin and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and it actually feels intended for kids, which is refreshing indeed.
Although the film is set in the fantastical Kumandra, Raya and the Last Dragon (again, like Aladdin) collapses a bunch of national and regional identities into one exploration of Southeast Asian culture. Elements of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are incorporated here, from the design of a downtown market, to the flavors of the soup the characters savor together after a hard day, to the designs of the dragons themselves. (Polygon and Den of Geek both did some helpful writeups about the various cultural nods.) Your reaction to this kind of broad representation strategy, which Disney also used with Coco and Moana, may vary, and I don’t think it’s my place as an individual not of Southeast Asian descent to speak to the accuracies or inaccuracies here. But from a purely aesthetic perspective, Raya and the Last Dragon is often staggeringly beautiful, with exceptional detail in an item as small as a single lotus flower, as sprawling as a gigantic city fortress built up over the water, and as fantastical as the shaggy, iridescent mane of a water dragon. (The less said about the uninspired design of the smoke monster bad guys, the better.)
Five hundred years ago, the people of Kumandra and its dragons fought together against the Druun, floating orbs of black smoke and purple lightning who, when they passed through people, turned them into stone. (Yes, a little like the spectres in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and in myriad other young adult and sci-fi literature.) No one knows what caused the Druun, but their omnipresence eventually overpowered the dragons. The last dragon, Sisu, transferred all the dragon magic left into a gem that defeated the Druun and has since been guarded fiercely by the people of Heart, one of the five lands of Kumandra. Since the disappearance of Sisu 500 years ago, although the Druun are also gone, the people of the various lands, including Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine, have resented Heart for having the gem.
Heart Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), though, believes that the people of Kumandra can come together again. He invites everyone to Heart, and encourages his daughter Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) to share his ideology that unity is better than separation—but then, Raya’s new friend, Fang princess Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), betrays her. The dragon gem breaks, splitting into five pieces, four of which are taken by the leaders of Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. The Druun come back. Benja’s father turns into stone, but before doing so, sends Raya away with the last gem piece. And six years later, Raya is obsessed with the idea that Sisu is still alive somewhere, and can be awoken from her centuries-long slumber.
Of course, because this movie is named Raya and the Last Dragon, Raya is correct, but when awakened, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) isn’t exactly what Raya expected. She’s goofy, and very sincere—potentially even naïve—and she doesn’t understand why Raya has such deep trust issues. And as Raya and Sisu set off on a journey to collect the remaining dragon gem pieces to empower Sisu and vanquish the Druun once and for all, Sisu’s ideology—like Chief Benja’s—that togetherness is the most important thing of all chafes against Raya’s cynicism.
Raya and the Last Dragon then falls into a certain pattern: Raya and Sisu visit one of the other lands; outsmart booby traps, outfight armies, and outrun the Druun in order to collect each gem piece; and Sisu gently, kindly tries to nudge Raya toward trusting other people again. Maybe 10-year-old boat captain Boun (Izaac Wang) isn’t trying to poison them with his congee. Maybe Spine fighter Tong (Benedict Wong, yay!) isn’t really going to kill them. Maybe the toddler Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her trio of Ongis, half-monkey, half-catfish creatures who are just as mischievous as she is, just want a little attention. And while Raya’s crew is steadily growing, Namaari realizes that her onetime friend and present-day foe is up to something. Why is Raya collecting all the dragon gem pieces? After the collapse of Heart, Namari’s land Fang grew into a powerhouse. Could all that crumble with whatever Raya is up to?
The vintage feel of Raya and the Last Dragon is thanks to the component parts that are so familiar to Disney viewers at this point: an anachronistic script; a spunky, street-smart protagonist paired with two goofy sidekicks in Tuk Tuk, Raya’s half-pig, half-armadillo, and Sisu (Tran and Awkwafina have solid chemistry together, with the latter toning down some of her more criticized vocal tics); and a narrative that doesn’t really interrogate any of its villains’ motivations. In a throwaway line, Chief Benja mentions how the other lands resent Heart for its wealth and success. Um, that seems like a valid concern to me! Heart does seem pretty lush while the other lands are like, barren deserts! I might have some antipathies developed as a result of that, too!
But I guess geopolitics aren’t the particular interest of Raya and the Last Dragon, which holds firmly in the “This is a movie for kids, and kids should learn to trust and befriend each other” mode. And I guess that’s fine, since that messaging is communicated through some really exciting set pieces: James Newton Howard’s surprisingly electronica score adds delicious tension when the film shifts in dragon-gem-heist mode; a duel between Raya and Namaari will inevitably be the inspiration for some slash fiction; and Sisu regaining her ability to fly, condensing water droplets into a series of iridescent steps upon which she can run, jump, and glide through the clouds, is a truly satisfying moment of self-fulfillment. Raya and the Last Dragon sags a bit as Raya and Sisu’s journey becomes a bit predictable, but as an overall throwback, and as a return to the streamlined storytelling upon which Disney built its supremacy, it’s a welcome expansion of the Disney universe. Bow down to our overlords once again.
Raya and the Last Dragon is, as of March 5, 2021, playing in theaters and is available on Disney+ for a $29.99 rental fee, in addition to Disney+’s monthly subscription cost.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures