“Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021)
Running Time: 107 minutes
Written by: Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim
Directed by: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Featuring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh,Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong and Alan Tudyk
Sisu: “I’m going to be real with you, alright? I’m not like the best dragon, you know?”
Raya: “But you saved the world.”
Sisu: “I did do that. That’s true. But have you ever done like a group project, but there’s like that one kid who didn’t pitch in as much, but still ended up with the same grade? Yeah, I wasn’t the one who actually made the gem. I just turned it in.”
Released on Blu-ray and DVD is the latest Pixar feature “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) that features at its heart a fictional creation of Asian mythology that makes this movie not only unique but actually makes it stand out in the now crowded animated environment that exists in the marketplace today. Not only is this movie one of the highlights of this new pandemic environment but it also feels like it was not given the attention it so richly deserves. To ensure its cultural authenticity, the filmmakers formed a story trust of Southeast Asian cultural experts, including choreographers, musicians, linguists, architects, cultural experts, martial artists, and anthropologists. In the early days of making the film, a group of filmmakers and artists traveled to Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore to gain inspiration. The key creative team itself consisted of people with Southeast Asian cultural backgrounds, and they shared their life backgrounds and added details they felt were important.
The movie is set in the prosperous land of Kumandra is ravaged by the Druun, threatening evil spirits that petrify people and dragons. Sisu, the last dragon, concentrates her magic into a gem and banishes the Druun, reviving Kumandra’s people but not the dragons. A power struggle for the gem divides Kumandra’s people into five tribes, based on their placement along with a giant, dragon-shaped river: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Five hundred years later, Chief Benja of the Heart tribe trains his daughter Raya to protect the gem. Firmly believing that the tribes can be united once again, Benja decides to hold a feast for the leadership of all five tribes. During the feast, Raya befriends Namaari, the daughter of Chief Virana of the Fang tribe, who gives Raya a dragon pendant as a gift. Trusting her, Raya shows Namaari the location of the gem, but she betrays Raya as part of a plot to help Fang steal it. Alerted to the attack, Benja and the other tribes arrive at the scene and start fighting over the gem, which gets broken in the scuffle. As each tribe steals a piece of the gem, the Druun reawaken and overtake Heart and its people before spreading throughout the rest of Kumandra. Benja saves Raya by throwing her off the bridge into the water below and she watches him get swallowed and petrified by the Druun. The actual plot of the movie is not new not only in terms of other animated movies but in other genres as well, however what makes it great are all the details that have been interwoven to make “Raya and the Last Dragon” actually unique and something that Disney should be very proud of.
Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” available this week in limited theatrical release and on Disney+ for an extra fee, is a wonderful adventure. Blending imagery and mythology from several Southeast Asian cultures into its own vision, it’s an ambitious family film that will work for all ages, and one that never talks down to its audience while presenting them with an entertaining, thought-provoking story. It also contains some of the most striking imagery Disney has ever produced, dropping its characters in a world that feels both classic and new at the same time.
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada who both have a large amount of experience both in animated and live action features which pays off well here especially since the movie feels very real especially in the design and the real world feel that is throughout it. Written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim who even though they are creating an animated feature do not get lost in it and they have created three dimensional characters with what feels like real emotion as well as stakes for audiences to get involved in.
The voice work in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is excellent with Kelly Marie Tran showing some real talent with a much better character than her ‘Star Wars’ efforts. There is just the right amount of vulnerability and strength in her Raya. The entire ensemble brings their A-game: Kim grounds a father/daughter dynamic with just a few scenes, Wong is so fun that he could anchor a spin-off about his character, and Chan sells the complex arc of a young woman forced by her mother to act against her own beliefs.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” could have been yet another traditional Disney princess story, a story about a young woman chosen by legacy or magic to save her people. It’s a story about fallibility and uncertainty that is framed by a great narrative that pays homage to mythology that has come before while creating its own past, present, and future.