In this strange year of movie-watching at home, it’s unfortunate that Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t get the big screen exposure that it deserved. (With cheapskates like myself, who sadly didn’t even want to shell out the $30 premium money to watch it several months ago, we’ve treated a beautiful, fun, exciting, enjoyable potential Disney blockbuster pretty much like a home video. Better late than never, I hope.) Regardless, Disney’s latest addition to its collection of fantasy-adventure-princess-tales makes a great foray into the southeast Asian culture, and a worthy successor to recent hits like Moana and Frozen. Raya‘s fictional land of Kumandra comes with its own magical history involving the Druun, dark spirit creatures who plagued their world, turning everyone to stone, until the magical dragons stopped them all (at their own expense). Now the land is broken into five city-states all vying for prominence, and our hero Raya, with her father Benja, try to reunite the land while the factions scheme and trick their way into seizing the power of the Dragon Stone — the last remaining source of dragon magic.
A plot summary might make it seem like Raya skews in favour of epic fantasy (in other words, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones territory), it’s actually much more in the traditional Disney vein, with emotional and moral lessons at the core. Raya and Benja suffer from an excess of optimism and trust, so when they invite the leaders of the various factions to their city, it leads to a bad outcome: the Dragon Stone is shattered and the Druun return to the land, petrifying Benja and many others. This is really more of a prologue to the main story where an older Raya sets out on a quest to restore the Dragon Stone and save her father. In the process, she must rediscover her faith in people and to trust again.
Though Raya sadly does not include any catchy musical numbers, or delightful earworms to drive the parents crazy with overplay, it does follow many of the other rules from the Disney playbook. When Raya sets out on her quest, she is joined by many fun side-kicks, including her ride/pet/friend Tuk Tuk (a giant hedgehog-pillbug creature), a fast-talking young boy Boun (a riverboat seafood-congee hawker), and a trio of grifting monkeys along with their ring-leading con-baby, who all add cuteness to the crew. Also, Awkwafina lends her comedic energy when she joins as the free-spirited id of the group: Sisu the titular last dragon. While not quite on the level of Robin Williams’s genie, Sisu does admirably keep things frenetic and crazy or heartfelt and tender when each is called for.
The rest of the cast represents the A-list of Asian talent today: as Raya, Kelly Marie Tran gets to play the kind of hero she didn’t get to in the Star Wars franchise (where she played the often ignored Rose Tico). Disney animators did an excellent job at making Raya kick butt, and I think this film has the most fight scenes of any Disney movie. From a politico-cultural point of view, though, I wish that at least one of Disney’s two Asian-focused animated films, Mulan or Raya, could have avoided the stereotype that all Asians settle our differences with martial arts. However, the fight scenes were still top-notch. Daniel Dae Kim (probably most famous for playing Jin on Lost) lends his gentle-wise voice to Raya’s ba, Benja, and opposite him Sandra Oh plays the matriarch of the rival Fang faction. Opposite Raya is Namaari, the Fang princess, voiced by Crazy Rich Asians dream-girl Gemma Chan (who disappointingly traded her mellifluous British accent for a tough-talking American one). It was gratifying to hear all these familiar voices and they all did great jobs bringing life and energy to these characters. As a fellow Asian, I am so proud and thrilled about this.
It almost goes without saying that the animation is incredible, as well. Kumandra apparently covers all kinds of climates, so the artists had to create convincing landscapes impressively ranging from snowy rockies to dusty deserts to lush riverside jungles. They all definitely deserved to be viewed on the big screen. As I mentioned, the fight scenes were excellent — well-choreographed and fluidly animated. I have seen quite a few fight scenes from anime and Chinese CGI animation that are pretty well done, and Raya‘s scenes are right up there with those (plus they have a whole lot more heart to them). Also, Raya has her father’s super-cool sword which can extend into a kind of blade-whip that is thrilling to see in action (though it also gets Raya into some trouble later on). On top of the human fighting, there is also a great big climax scene where the Druun make their attack and Raya’s crew try their best to rescue and evacuate as many innocents as they can — another scene that really deserved to be seen on the big screen. I think Disney animation just keeps improving film after film, so I can probably stop gushing about its latest — you get it.
Though it starts with the theme of trust vs betrayal (which is kind of a one-to-one perspective), I’m glad that the story finds its way to trust and unity — a much more communal perspective. It seems that generally storytellers like to bring out the community aspects of the Asian culture, so I am all for that. As with so many Asian-based movies, we Asians get excited and love to support them, but they still have a hard time making the top of the list with general audiences. That’s perhaps the biggest reason why it’s unfortunate that Raya won’t get the chance to hit it big at the box office (I wonder how well it did as a premium-access movie on Disney+) and make a name for itself. I think it deserved that and so much more — including a hit theme song. (4.5 out of 5)