'Raya and the Last Dragon' review: Disney returns with another classic
But now that I’ve watched it, I can say the dragon and the film as a whole, surpassed all expectations with flying colours.
When the live-action adaptation of Mulan dropped in theatres last year, it failed to appeal to fans of the original film like me. While the lack of songs was a dealbreaker for Mouse House purists, the absence of the witty Chinese Dragon Mushu was another nail in the coffin. So I was looking forward to what Disney would do with the mythical creature in Raya and the Last Dragon. Expectations can be dangerous and I often let them get the better of me. But now that I’ve watched it, I can say the dragon and the film as a whole, surpassed all expectations with flying colours.
The premise that sets up the events is anything but unique. The fictional world of Kumandra is made up of five different landmasses named Fang, Talon, Tail, Spine, and Heart, and they come together conveniently to form the shape of — you guessed it — a dragon. When the people of these five kingdoms fight for the much treasured Dragon Gem, they inadvertently break it. Unluckily for them, the gem’s magic is the only force that stops a plague called Druun that terrorised them a few centuries back.
During that time, the dragons who coexisted with humans, sacrificed themselves to make the Dragon Gem. Without it, pandora’s box is now left open and the plague, which turns lifeforms into stone at a rate that would put Medusa to shame, returns. It’s up to the Heart Land princess Raya (voiced by a brilliant Kelly Marie Tran) to track down the last surviving dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina at her goofiest best) to save humanity.
Once the world-building ends, the film takes a course unlike those we’ve seen in previous Disney films. If the young girl had gone on an adventure all alone to retrieve something, that would’ve just been a rehash of Moana and other such titles. Raya and the Last Dragon, however, is another step forward for Disney Princesses, who are no more damsels-in-distress who exist just to find their one true love. Instead, trust forms the core of the film, with Raya and Sisu at the opposite ends. The last time Raya trusted someone, it caused a cascading effect leading to the return of the Druun.
On the other hand, Sisu was witness to the trust of the other dragons that sacrificed themselves to create the gem. Throw in a bunch of wacky characters and we have the mini equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers a group who have all been affected by a common enemy and are forced to team up to fight for the greater good. Strong character building in a short span of time for pivotal characters is right up Disney’s alley. But directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada take it up a notch here and do something that many Hollywood bigwigs fail at develop multiple characters in less than two hours.
While revealing anything about these additional characters would impair the joy of actually experiencing them, it’s safe to say, after Moana and now Raya, new-age Disney princesses don’t have to go solo on their missions. Sisu is easily one of, if not the, most fun-loving and entertaining dragons in all the fictitious lands. She’s also the first dragon I know of who follows a strict skin regime. The wackiness of Sisu is contagious and despite treading a thin line between enjoyable and obnoxious, Awkwafina manages to make Sisu one of the most memorable animated characters.
Equally formidable is Tran’s Raya. Unlike many of her predecessors, she’s a trained fighter but still has the Disney Princess DNA that’s replete with love, honour, bravery, and most importantly, sorrow. The loss of kin has been a prime theme not just in Disney films involving princesses, but also others like The Lion King and Finding Nemo. After 1998’s Mulan introduced the first-ever Asian Disney Princess, this film is the studio’s effort to represent Southeast Asia. But amusingly, apart from Tran, most of the voice actors are from East Asia.
This comes after the studio was criticised just a year ago for having a production team largely comprised of white people for the live-action adaptation of Mulan. Visually though, the film captures the true essence of Southeast Asia and vividly showcases the different landscapes. The visual spectacle is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent times. The VFX clarity in elements like water and rain, and the way physics is not taken for granted in the fight scenes, are reasons enough to go to your nearest theatres.
This film has everything we love and expect from a Disney film. The animation is the best to date, the characters are well fleshed out, the fight scenes are jaw-dropping, and the film overall feels like a tightly packed bag of goodies that is sure to surprise you with something new every time you dip into it. Though the experiment at diversity is not as satisfying as in previous attempts like Moana or Coco, Disney pulls another magic trick with Raya and the Last Dragon that is sure to entertain both the child seated next to you and the one inside you.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim
Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada