Funny thing about global pandemics: they infuse a whole lot of extra meaning into movies, whether the filmmakers intended it or not. In the case of Disney’s Raya And The Last Dragon, the film began development as early as 2018, yet it finished as a virtual production, with the majority of the cast and animators working from home. The completed film, a melange of Southeast Asian inspirations, now enters theaters and Disney+ Premier Access at a time of heightened anti-Asian racism and attacks. Despite any possible intentions to the contrary, Raya and global politics are inescapably intertwined.
The film takes place in the fictitious world of Kumandra, where an evil force known as the Druun threatened to destroy everything it encountered. Kumandra’s dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity by creating a Dragon Gem, but 500 years later the Druun has returned. Now Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) journeys across the various lands, each named after parts of a dragon, with her pill bug companion Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk). She plans to collect the broken gem pieces, hoping to defeat the Druun once again. Through a ceremony with one of the pieces, Raya brings back the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). Able to appear as both dragon and human, Sisu joins Raya on her quest. Along the way, their entourage grows to include Boun (Izaac Wang), the ten-year-old owner of the “Shrimporium” boat restaurant from Tail, Noi (Thalia Tran), a toddler con artist with her own band of Ongis from Talon, and Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior giant from Spine.
If the whole story sounds a bit confusing for a kid’s movie, you are somewhat correct. Raya narrates the dystopian opening scene by saying, “How did this world get so broken?” That launches into a three-minute sequence of exposition, animated to look like paper art, describing the origins of the segmented landscape. Everything becomes a bit clearer as the movie progresses, but some of the plot points will probably fly right over the heads of younger viewers.
Raya And The Last Dragon utilized a buffet approach to including cultural elements in the film, creating the Southeast Asia Story Trust to assist in those efforts. Similar to Disney’s prior work in Moana, where they established the Oceanic Story Trust, a variety of experts were brought on board to encourage authenticity. This creates a fictional world that, while not representative of a specific culture, allows those who are of Southeast Asian ancestry to see at least some parts of themselves represented.
Raya And The Last Dragon showcases plenty of action, frequently drawing comparisons—at least from me—to the Indiana Jones franchise. The confrontational scenes between Raya and her nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), feature amazing fight choreography that never becomes too violent or scary for the children who might be watching. The filmmakers know their target audience and keep things family-friendly, although it should be noted this film earned a PG, not a G, rating.
The animation lives up to any expectations you might have from Disney, who continues to push the boundaries of just how detailed their characters and backgrounds can get. Sisu, in dragon form, showcases this beautifully, with her candy-colored fur and glowing essence. While I’ll always be a fan of traditional, hand-drawn animation, you cannot help but be impressed by just how beautifully everything is rendered in Raya.
Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada take you on an emotional journey with this movie. You get laughter, tears, and an epic adventure, all while learning the importance of trusting others, and without a character bursting into song. Sure, the idea of a broken and divided land definitely hits a little too close to home considering the current state of the world. That said, you can find at least a little hope and inspiration in Raya And The Last Dragon.
You can catch Raya And The Last Dragon in theaters and on Disney+ via Premier Access beginning on March 5, 2021.
About Raya and the Last Dragon
Rating: PG (Some Violence|Action|Thematic Elements)
Runtime: 1h 30m
“Raya and the Last Dragon” takes us on an exciting, epic journey to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.