Sometimes, a film being magical and beautiful goes a long way with me. But when it decides to throw in a great deal of thrilling action, really fun voice talents and a blend of Southeast Asian mythology, well, I’m basically all in. I did something I haven’t done in many months this past weekend: I went to a press screening in an actual theater. I was one of only three people in the Dolby ATMOS-equipped theater, and the other two critics were seated in an entirely different section (I was in the balcony; they were on the main floor). It was glorious. I’m not saying any of this to begin the debate about whether it’s better or even safe to watch a movie in a theater these days, but it was nice to be reminded that I became a film critic primarily because the theatrical experience means the world to me and I have missed it terribly. Thanks to Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon, I miss it a little bit less.
Like many legends, Raya begins with an even older legend, about the fictional world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together in peace (these are less Game of Thrones dragons and more parade dragons, wispy and glowing). When these nasty, formless, black-purple smoke creatures known as the Druun threaten life in Kumandra, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the land and their human friends, leaving behind a dragon stone (which looks a lot like an Infinity Stone) and one remaining dragon named Sisu, who goes into hiding.
In the 500 years since that fateful event, Kumandra has been divided up into many regions, many of which are at odds with each other because the region led by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) has been charged with guarding the stone, and many believe they have used its power to become prosperous over the years—an unfounded accusation. Benja is teaching his young daughter Raya how to join him in protecting the stone, which seems more important than ever as the many regions are about to have a meeting that he hopes will reunite the land of Kumandra once again. But he is tricked by Virana (Sandra Oh) and her young daughter, Namaari, who pretends to befriend Raya, and the stone is broken in several pieces. When this happens, the protection against the Druun vanishes and they swarm through all the lands, turning anyone in their path to stone.
And that’s just the prologue. The bulk of the film involves a grown-up Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, from the most recent Star Wars trilogy) combing the now desolate wastelands formerly known as Kumandra in search of the dragon stone pieces, adding fellow searchers who share her mission along the way. They even stumble upon the last living dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), who isn’t exactly the most heroic or noble of her dragon brothers and sisters (she likens herself to that kid in a class group project who doesn’t do any of the work but still gets the same grade). On her quest, Raya is pursued by Virana and the now grown Namaari (Gemma Chan), who both think it’s time their region control the reunited stone pieces and prosper as well.
Directed by Don Hall (Moana, Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), Raya and the Last Dragon is a truly stunning piece of animation, from the fantastically realized dragon to the way water, fire, fog, and even the Druuns are visualized. There are also a great number of high-flying sword fights and other action sequences, and a host of really talented supporting players, including Izaac Wang as Boun, a kid with a much-needed boat, and Benedict Wong as Tong, a lonely warrior from a region decimated by the Druun. As clichéd as it might be, Raya has a very expressive pet pangolin (kind of like a pill bug crossed with an armadillo), who grows to be quite massive as she gets older and assists her in countless ways, including as a means of transportation.
But it’s the messages of trust, working with others and bringing people with opposing viewpoints together for a common good that sold me on this exquisite work. The themes are kept simple—almost too much so, as they clearly want to appeal to younger audiences—but that doesn’t make them any less worthy or significant. Thanks in large part to Awkwafina, Raya is also really funny. I know some people are going to criticize the film for Sisu’s modern colloquialisms, but I never found it distracting or problematic (again except for rare moments when I found the dialogue was pandering to children rather than in the service of a lovely story).
As the stone fragments are collected, each one gives Sisu the power of one of her fellow dragons (also turned to stone), again adding to the Infinity Stone feel of them. But as her powers grow, so does her confidence in her abilities. I wish the relationship between the two young women, Raya and Namaari, wasn’t as contentious, but when they do combine forces, it makes the film an exponentially better experience. As much as I adore most Pixar films, I will never get tired of watching something from the Disney Animation Studios. Their usually princess-based goals are more humble than those at Pixar, but the results always seem to move me just as much.
Preceding Raya and the Last Dragon is a new Disney Short entitled Us Again, a dialogue-free but dance-heavy story of an elderly couple who have forgotten how to dance. The young-at-heart wife wants to walk through the pulsating city outside, while the husband is content to sit at home. But a rainy night and rhythmic funky soul tunes make them remember their youth and the endless possibilities of that time in their lives. Directed by Zach Parrish and designed to look like it was shot with handheld cameras much of the time, the film is the first Disney short film since 2016; it’s sweet, breezy, and joyful, without ever getting overly saccharine
The film (and short) begins playing theatrically on Friday, March 5, and will also be available on Disney+ for a premium price.
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