by Leoni Horton
Okay, so rapidly-multiplying, world-altering monster plagues are something of a touchy subject at the moment. However, although an all too familiar pandemic lays at the centre of Raya and the Last Dragon, the film couldn’t be further away from the terrible misery we have come to know over the last year. Disney’s latest magical saga is a welcome infusion of hope, adventure and terrific fun. The film is an inviting fusion of Southeast Asian mythology, presented through astounding visuals, awe-inspiring new worlds, wholesome characters and that classic Disney charm we all love so much.
Led by yet another inspiring female heroine and the first Southeast Asian protagonist in the Disney universe, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) joins the ranks of such revolutionary female warriors as Moana, Merida and Mulan. Her home, the former kingdom of Kumandra, a once harmonious realm and home to a mythical species of dragon, is now a splinted group of five feuding factions. Legend has it that to save the kingdom from the Drunn – a vicious plague of purple gas that turns everything it touches into stone – the dragons sacrificed themselves, using their remaining magic to wipe out the monstrous invasion. However, torn apart, distrusting and jealous of one another, the people of Kumandra separated into five lands: Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang and Heart. They fight for control over the last remaining piece of dragon magic, which exists in the form of a glowing blue crystal, tucked away inside of Heart for protection. Raya and her Father, Benja (Daniel Dea Kim), the leader of Heart, swear to protect the last of the magic. However, when Namaari (Gemma Chan) of Fang double-crosses Raya and the people of Heart, the crystal is damaged, and the dreaded Drunn descends once again.
Six years later, having lost her father to the Drunn, Raya searches for the last remaining dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). Raya pins all of her hopes on Sisu’s powers, hoping that she will be able to use her magic to defeat the Drunn a second time. However, when she finally meets the lacklustre dragon – who describes herself as that member of a group project who doesn’t put in any work but still gets the same grade as the others – her hopes are dashed. The pair quickly discovers that Sisu’s sibling’s powers linger inside the remaining crystal fragments, and they formulate a new plan: travel across the five lands, unite the broken pieces of crystal and use its power to defeat the Drunn and restore Kumandra’s fallen people from stone.
Raya’s journey across her splinted home moves at a break-neck pace, slipping from one fully-realised world of spectacle and wonder into the next before we have time to take in all of the delights each land has to offer. Directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have truly committed an awe-inspiring amount of detail into each second of this film. Every stop along the way – from the dry wasteland of Tail to Talon’s charming lantern-lit eccentricity – drips with colour, mesmerising visuals, a depth of intriguing characters and a unique sense of identity. There’s an overwhelming amount of legend and backstory to contend with, yet Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen’s sharp screenplay balances the epic mythology with fun bursts of gripping, beautifully orchestrated fight sequences and quirky, genre-defying action.
Kelly Marie Tran makes for a compelling lead, hitting equal notes of boldness and vulnerability in her performance as Raya. It’s magnificent to see her so wonderfully navigating a new space within the Disneysphere after she was so bone headedly cast aside in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Awkwafina brings her usual New York twang into the framework, reaching those charming, comedic highs we’ve come to associate with her. As Sisu, she gets to look at the world with fresh eyes, drawing us in further with her optimistic take on a tarnished world in which she can still see promise. One of the film’s biggest strengths is the ragtag group of unusual accomplices/ supporting characters Raya and Susi pick up along their way: Raya’s trusty and impossibly cute sidekick Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a delightfully witty shrimp boat Captain named Boum (Izaac Wang), a one-eyed, lonely warrior named Tong (Benedict Wong) and a ‘con baby’ who uses her cute vulnerability and her three pet monkeys as a ploy to pick the pockets of her victims. Each character is as unforgettable as the next, delightfully bonkers in their own way yet as equally deserving of their own standalone feature films. They work together beautifully, uniting their fragmented kingdoms through kindness, trust and their own specific brand of magic.
Current big themes in our own divided world such as polarised political landscapes, distrust, disease, environmental issues, power discourse, ignorance and greed run as an undercurrent throughout the film, grounding the emotional core of this animated joy-ride. Although wonderfully fun and emotionally resonant, Raya and the Last Dragon is a clever piece of film-making that will bring about much-needed and frank discussion surrounding topics of empathy, understanding and kindness. Yet, most importantly, this film holds the hope we’ve all been searching for throughout this isolating past year, offering us the tools with which we can find a route back to humanity: togetherness, kindness, patience. If we keep Raya’s journey in mind on the road out of this pandemic, perhaps we will discover a new world waiting for us that’s even better than the one we left behind.
Raya and the Last Dragon is available to watch on Disney+