It’s difficult to find anything not to like in Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest family adventure with an overtly positive message. In many ways it’s satisfying yet standard fantasy fare with no startling innovations. The land is divided into five realms and our young hero takes up a quest to seek the last dragon, which holds the key to healing the world. It really is an archetypal age-old tale, slickly delivered.
Some five centuries before we join this mythic tale, the land of Kumandra had been harmonious, with humans and dragons living alongside one another in prosperity and peace. Then the mysterious, amorphous Druun attacked, turning anyone they touched to stone. The beautiful, candy-coloured dragons pooled all their magic into a gemstone and entrusted it to the last of their kind—who used the power to dispel the rampaging Druun and restore the people who’d been petrified.
Alas, this didn’t work for the stone dragons themselves. However, now that all the dragon magic was stored in just the one artefact, the surviving humans fought for possession of its power and split into the five nations. A lovely, flat animation sequence tells us all this, narrated by Raya herself (Kelly Marie Tran), who tells us that, bad as that may seem, it wasn’t what “broke the world.”
The dragon gem is now in the keeping of the Heart clan, and their chief, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), has raised his daughter, Raya, to be its guardian. To broker a new peace, Benja invites the other clans to a feast of friendship, and during the event Raya is befriended by Namaari (Jona Xiao), daughter of Virana (Sandra Oh), the chief of the Fang clan. The two young girls bond over their love of dragons and the trusting Raya takes her new friend to see the secret temple of the dragon gem. Big mistake! In the ensuing confrontation, the gem is shattered and immediately the onslaught of the Druun recommences! Raya blames herself for the calamity and sets out to find the fabled last dragon in the hope of finding a fix.
With Raya, Disney takes another deliberate step away from their tried-and-tested formula along a path that reflects more contemporary sentiments. Perhaps the boldest first stride was taken with Frozen (2013), which wrote-off the classic Disney princess falls for handsome prince fairy tale and explored new territories of female empowerment, sisterly love, and self-sacrifice. Admittedly, they took a step back with Frozen II (2019), but moved tentatively forward again with Soul (2020) which once again centred on deeper emotional issues and bravely tackled massive existential themes!
Here, we have another story that dispenses with the tired ‘boy-meets-girl’ trope, though it’s still a love story of sorts, as much as Frozen was. This time it’s more of a ‘girl-meets-dragon’ thing, as we explore the love between father and daughter and the sibling affections between the dragons. Some critics have read a romantic aspect into the relationship between Raya and Namaari, attempting to shoehorn in a queer agenda. There may be hints at this, as a possible future development, but it’s never made explicit here. Perhaps Disney aren’t ready to tackle that issue head-on just yet? Friendship, in a more universal sense, is the more obvious theme, and it’s one that challenges the imposed societal expectations of the world the characters live in.
The central narrative is wholly Raya’s, as she fails to come to terms with the traumas of her past and, when she again meets Namaari (now voiced by Gemma Chan) six years later, there seems to be history of bitter rivalry between them, and everything’s gone decidedly dystopian. Her hope is restored when she finally summons the eponymous last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and tastes friendship once more. But can she ever overcome her fear of betrayal and learn to trust again? This is the crux of the story and though it plays out on a personal level, it’s also a broad metaphor for geo-political differences and mistrust born of past conflicts that still plague and threaten our real world.
Raya and the Last Dragon looks absolutely beautiful. The realisation of the concept art is fantastic in every sense. The rendering, right down to the background details and textures, goes above and beyond what’s required to simply illustrate a story. The dragon designs are pleasing and Sisu is definitely the big draw. It’s certainly one of the most gorgeous Disney films to date—an admirable achievement considering that the production involved the cast and crew of hundreds all working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. That, in itself, brings a new hope for the future of animation.
The witty screenplay also has a few laugh-out-loud funny moments. Although the orphaned ‘con-baby’, Noi (Thalia Tran), and her pick-pocket monkey pals didn’t work for me. The situation was a little too tragic if one pauses to consider it. They also felt like they’d busted-in from a different movie! However, for those to whom it appeals, no doubt the the cutesy tot and her simian associates will be a fave feature.
The world-building is fine and hinted there’s yet more to explore, but it’s not up to the standard of some series I can think of. The Dragon Prince (2018-19) springs fastest to mind, perhaps because it too features a ‘last dragon’ as the key to uniting warring realms. Not to mention, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance? But then again, a TV series has more time to lavish on such things. For a standalone movie, Raya does a great job in 107 highly enjoyable minutes.
It achieves this by falling back on familiar tropes to some extent. I mean, how many fantasy worlds are divided into five, or thereabouts, conflicted kingdoms? How many stories rely on a fabled fragmented gem, or even a set of ‘Infinity Stones’, being reassembled? This is the film’s weakness, but also its strength, as we need to hear some stories told again and again until we learn the lessons they hold.
The film’s relevance lies in the resonance it strikes with our own threatened and conflicted contemporary world. Human avarice and mistrust are at the root of most international conflicts. Our material greed is steering us toward a dystopian future of our own making. In this way, it’s commenting on current events and reiterates a need to re-establish our harmony with the natural world we have knowingly damaged. A central thread of Raya and the Last Dragon is that of youth speaking truth to power and breaking the generational cycle of repetition. As far as fantasy goes, there aren’t any ground-breaking surprises and all the expected elements are as they should be. There’s something comforting about that and, overall, it’s the kind of heart-warming optimistic story we may need now more than ever.
USA | 2021 | 107 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Voices & Crew
directors: Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada.
writers: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim.
voices: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong & Alan Tudyk.