A couple of things become eminently clear in the first five minutes of Raya and the Last Dragon. The first is that this may well be the crowing visual achievement of Disney’s in house animation team in the post-hand drawn era. It’s gorgeous stuff. Breathtaking. Second, the whole thing is very ‘on-brand’. The twenty-first century Disney Princess owes a lot to the Frozen mould and that’s both a blessing and a curse. When Dwayne Johnson’s Maui cracked the code in Moana – ‘if you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess’ – that was irony. In Raya, it’s marketable. Take that as you will. Raya doesn’t sing but she doesn’t do much we’ve not seen before either.
Another notable feature of those first moments of Raya and the Last Dragon is just how thickly writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim lay on an understanding that the film will serve very much as a parable to the woes of our own world. There’s talk of a mindless plague, a broken world and humanity fighting among themselves in the face of a common enemy.
Star Wars breakout Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya, the headstrong, young, would be warrior whose guilt driven perseverance will bring them together. Or so we hope. There’s certainly a lot to be said about the pressure faced by today’s young to remedy the mistakes of those more senior. In this fight, however, Raya’s not alone. Sure, she’s got her trademark animal sidekick and she’s got Sisu: the last dragon.
To recap – there’s a lot of that – five hundred years prior, dragons roamed the Earth. Harbingers of peace and prosperity, it was the magic of these magical beings alone that saved humanity from the evil Druun. That’s the film’s big bad: a purple mass of dusty fog with the power to transform flesh and bone to stone. Just as all seemed lost, Sisu finally defeated the Druun with the aid of an orb that not only warded off the Druun, but also restored everyone to life.
Cut to the present and dragons are ancient history. When a young Raya’s naivety leads enemy tribes to accidentally break the orb, the Druun returns and turns her father to stone in the process. It’s a six year quest that finally leads Raya to Sisu and herein the story begins.
Awkwafina voices Sisu. Hilarious in Crazy Rich Asians and heartbreaking in The Farewell, the rising star brings a bit of both to Raya. It’s a sure showing and well routed in the traditions of Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy, if never so sharp as either. Sisu is, by self admission, ‘not like the best dragon’ but has much to offer in singing the virtues of trust. Raya’s is a world in which a lone warrior is so because she can rely on no other. Her father’s faith in human collaboration – his wish for Kumandra – was his downfall and it’s a mistake Raya won’t make twice. Unless, of course, Sisu can change her mind. Truth be told, it’s not the most complex of arks. Often, it feels rather too plotted to surprise. To that end, Raya risks playing by rote. Without the elevatory power of musical interludes, it’s hard to say how far the film will catch on. In the context of a Disney+ launch, only time will tell.
Strongest of the film’s assets is, then, it’s visual panache. Inspired by a melting pot of Southeast Asian cultures, Raya fuses the conventional with the two dimensional and creative. Such splendour and verve are, perhaps, not so surprising from a directing team – Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada – who have, respectively, given the world Big Hero 6 and Blindspotting.
Colour washes over each and every frame and the time and effort put in by those behind the scenes is inescapable. While the backdrops dazzle, the waifs of Raya’s hair astonish and the fluff of Sisu’s mane cry out to be nuzzled. There’s no denying the character‘s potential for merchandising. Even if Disney does rather shoot itself in the foot with a cast list that implies the studio retains a misplaced faith in the homogeneity of the Asian continent, all on screen pays dividends. Raya is empowering, cinematically fresh and one more step along the road to seamless representation.
All told, Raya and the Last Dragon zips along nicely. Gemma Chan proves a good foil for Tran as Raya’s frenemy in chief Namaari, while Benedict Wong lends his voice to a giant straight from Tangled’s tavern of thieves. Action packed fun pays tribute to the likes of Indiana Jones and the Oceans franchise and aforementioned nods to the traditions of all from Laos to the Philippines surely warrant a rewatch or two to be fully appreciated. Fifty nine films in, the Disney formula is still going strong.