Raya and the Last Dragon is a sumptuous visual feast

Disney’s 59th animated feature film is loaded with charm, emotion and depth.

Starring Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, and Alan Tudyk

These days, it’s almost hard to hear the word “Disney” without associating it with a soulless, unstoppable corporate machine. The line of acquisitions slowly piles up, from National Geographic to Fox, and with endless amounts of Star Wars, Marvel and Disney Animated content being announced, the image of Disney as cold and unfeeling, bulldozing over lesser business on its path to world domination becomes ever more synonymous with the previously joyful House of Mouse. Even though Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t quite wash the bitter taste of capitalism from the mouth, it does remind audiences of what Disney does best: telling a brilliant story, with a compelling central character who the audience can root for with a relatable trauma, with stunning visuals and engaging voice performances.

Yet another victim of the coronavirus pandemic, Raya and the Last Dragon finds itself foregoing a theatrical release in favour of a premium subscription on Disney+, a move that didn’t work out too favourably with Mulan. Unfortunately, since the only way to communicate success with filmmakers is money, this reviewer finds it important to support stories that boast a diverse central cast, even though its portrayal of Southeast Asian culture muddles characteristics of different cultures together.

Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who seeks the Last Dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to rid the world of the indiscriminately destructive Druun, a formless, nebulous monster that turns humans to stone, after an attempt at peace between the five tribes of Kumandra massively backfires. Six years after the world changing betrayal, Raya finds herself closed off, cynical and suspicious of those around her, keenly aware that the devastation faced by the world is a result of her previously trusting nature. As her travelling group becomes larger, however, and Raya finds herself united with many others who have suffered losses similar to her own, she finds herself realising that unity is more powerful than division, and will prove the key to defeating the great evil that menaces the entire of Kumandra.

As well as being the first Southeast Asian Princess (baffling that it took 59 films), Raya is a brilliantly flawed and layered character. Her reservations and her wariness towards those around her are hugely believable and relatable, and it always feels organic and never forced. She shares a commonality with other Disney heroines, through her desire to right a tremendous wrong and doing something out of service towards others.

She is joined on her travels with goofy dragon Sisu, who appears in much the same vein as Mushu in Mulan. Entirely unexpected, she is not nearly as powerful or serene as Raya expects, but her earnestness and excitement at the world is incredibly disarming. Awkwafina turns in a brilliantly entertaining vocal performance.

Raya is well supported in this story without attempting to shoehorn in a romantic subplot, as her connections to all of the characters and her own development are more than compelling enough, though the most transformative relationship is that between her and arch-nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), as a pair who seem to be magnetically drawn towards each other, but neither able to gift the other their trust. There’s also more than just a little bit of sexual tension there. Going to put that one on my flagpole right now.

This film is also strangely resonant and relevant in the current times. With the indiscriminate Druun echoing coronavirus and seeing the profound, tremendous and unexpected losses suffered by all of the main characters, it’s impossible not to see the similarities between the human suffering and the mindless destruction of an unfeeling entity. Even in the midst of this, the world finds itself divided through fear, instead of demonstrating unity. It displays the universality of these feelings of grief, terror and suspicion, though also the emboldening vulnerability that comes from opening yourself up to trust and faith. It’s a message that is put across pointedly enough to stick, but not focussed upon too much to come across as saccharine, merely disarmingly earnest.

The animation is a visual treat throughout, and within a short runtime, the viewer is presented with many varied locations: from foggy mountains, to searing deserts, the realistic rendering is consistently staggering. The different tribes are inspired by Southeast Asia, with writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, who are Vietnamese American and Malaysian American respectively, conducting extensive research to help make these locations feel real to Southeast Asian viewers. The depiction of dragons here is also drawn from folklore in this region, showing them more as lizardesque, writhing creatures with shimmering fur, instead of scaly, fire-breathing beasts that viewers may be more used to.

The score, by James Newton Howard, is just as varied as the visuals on offer. Emboldened with a Southeast Asian flair through the use of chimes and hand drums, it nicely complements the action. It amps up the tension and really helps the audience soak in the sheer beauty and victory of some moments. It does precisely what a good score should do: enhance what is already there, and gently transition the audience through the story in a way that feels emotionally cohesive.

Ultimately, Raya and the Last Dragon depicts an epic fantasy quest tale about a society severely divided, and a young woman suffering the after-effects of a traumatic betrayal, and how she reconciles her father’s and her own values with her own broken trust. Consistently breathtaking visuals and entertaining vocal performances, with an earnestly emotional core, Raya definitely stands up as a new Disney classic.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream now on Disney+ with Premier Access.

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