‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Review: A Disney Fantasy Fairy Tale
Raya and the Last Dragon takes a lot of character types from Disney’s Moana — including a regal father, an impulsive and brave princess, a smirking sidekick with godly powers, a quest for a faraway MacGuffin, and a fixation on water’s mystical powers — and places them in a Lord of the Rings-esque fantasy world, complete with magical objects, a race of unstoppable evildoers, and a “fellowship” that bands together to restore the utopia that was broken centuries before. There are many other familiar concepts and sequences, but they’re combined in unique ways, so that a batch of old ideas winds up feeling relatively fresh.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the wise chief of “Heart,” one of the five regions of Kumandra — the others are Spine, Talon, Tail, and Fang. Ages ago, humans and dragons lived harmoniously in Kumandra. Then came the sentient plague of glowing purple clouds known as “The Druun,” which turned anyone it touched to stone. The dragons sacrificed their lives to imprison the Druun inside a magical gem. In Raya’s opening scenes, the gem shatters into five pieces and the Druun return. Raya must locate and reassemble the gem pieces and find the mystical “last dragon” Sisu (Awkwafina) who supposedly holds the key to reuniting Kumandra and defeating the Druun forever.
Raya’s quest for the pieces of the Dragon Gem frequently gets her into elaborate fights, animated with intricate choreography and elaborate camera moves that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off in live-action. Her ornate sword can transform into a whip with a flick of her wrist, which comes in handy during chase scenes (and in a treasure hunting prologue straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s an appealing if slightly unusual choice for a Disney animated feature, which tend to lean on musical numbers for their big show-stopping sequences.
The task of lightening up what becomes a fairly dark family movie falls to a crew of comedy sidekicks, including Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a large pill bug-like creature that Raya rides like a horse, and Little Noi (Thalia Tran) a con artist who just so happens to also be an adorable baby. Then there’s Sisu, whose wisecracks feel specifically calculated to put younger audiences at ease amongst the intense villains and fight scenes. She might sound impossibly naive to the parents in the audience as she counsels Raya to work with the people of Kumandra’s four other regions — most notably Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of Fang and Raya’s rival since childhood — but her lessons about trust become essential to the film’s none-too-subtle allegory, where the only way to solve a global catastrophe is for disparate countries to toss aside their close-minded nationalist interests and unite for the good of all. (We don’t learn much about the Druun except that they are “borne of human discord.”)
Directors Carlos Lopez Estrada and Don Hall (who also co-directed Moana, along with Big Hero 6) hammer these themes home so insistently that Raya’s quieter scenes sometimes take on the quality of animated civics lectures. (“If we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart!” Benja pleads in a typical monologue.) The film does a better job of practicing what it preaches during its finale, which applies Sisu’s lessons about teamwork and trust into a moment that deviates from the usual fantasy climax stuff about heroes fulfilling their destiny by performing some remarkable physical act. (Estrada and Hall also develop a very interesting tension between Namaari and Raya, who are more like frenemies than a standard hero/villain combo.)
Raya and the Last Dragon explores all five of Kumandra’s regions, and each contains appealingly designed creatures, vivid locations, and cool fantasy costumes. The setting and the stakes are both on the adult end of the Disney spectrum. In that regard, Maya also recalls last summer’s Mulan, which took the old ’90s cartoon and aged it up for a more mature and action-oriented tween audience. Raya’s comparable approach yields superior results. The many similarities between Raya and Mulan and Moana suggest that Disney’s honed in on a new formula for their fairy tales, one that emphasizes (to borrow a phrase from a television series that anticipated the appetite for these kinds of stories) warrior princesses. In this case, at least, the formula works.
Raya and the Last Dragon premieres in theaters and will be available for a “Premier Access” fee on Disney+ March 5.
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