If ever we could use a story about the importance of trust and faith in humanity in the face of a devastating pandemic, it’s now. Enter Raya and the Last Dragon (in cinemas and arriving on Disney+ on March 5), which is set during the fallout from a supernatural plague. Here’s critic Travis Johnson’s review.
Disney have been trying to spread a wider net in terms of cultural inspiration for their films of late, and so far they’re one and one for their efforts. The Polynesian-inspired Moana? One for the ages. The live action Mulan? Widely derided for its ham-fisted cultural depictions of ancient China. Now comes Raya and the Last Dragon, which draws on a wide but complimentary range of South East Asian cultures for its setting and plot. How does it stack up? Well, let’s see…
Decades after the race of dragons sacrificed themselves to free the world of Kumandra from a supernatural plague called the Druun, the land has been divided into five Kingdoms who are all more or less mistrustful of each other. After the Kingdom of Fang betrays the Kingdom of Heart during a peace negotiation, Heart Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tranh) sets off on a years-long quest to a) find the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and b) reunite the sundered pieces of the Dragon Heart Gem, which should put paid to the Druun once and for all. Standing in her way are all kinds of threats and obstacles, not the least of which is her rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), warrior princess of the Fang…
Disney is, for a family-oriented company, no stranger to darkness. Consider the fate of Bambi’s mother, the homicidal plans of everyone from Snow White’s stepmother to Cruella de Ville, and the whole gamut of the Disney Dark Age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, even with that in mind, Raya and the Last Dragon feels darker and more mature than any recent Disney offering.
Its setting is literally post-apocalyptic, with Raya haring through a blighted land on her giant pill bug Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk on grunts and chirps), passing by hundreds of statues that used to be people (the Druun turns people to stone). It’s a hostile world; nobody trusts anyone, food and resources are scarce, and the threat of the Druun hangs heavy over everything. Forget Steamboat Willie; Raya is closer in tone to Mad Max.
But the film is also jaw-droppingly beautiful. In taking inspiration from Asian cultures rarely seen on western screens, writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, along with directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, have crafted a world that feels both exotic and authentic. The colours pop, the production design is intoxicating and detailed, and everything from the costumes to the food is rich in sumptuous detail (speaking of food, this might be the best animated representation of food since Ratatouille).
The cast is equally as colourful. Awkwafina is in Robin-Williams-as-Genie mode, bringing a winning wide-eyed goofiness to the now de rigeur pop culture references and modern slang. Tranh and Chan bring gravity and pathos to their roles as rivals bound by duty and familial loyalty, while Benedict Wong clearly enjoys being the gruff mountain warrior Tong, and Daniel Dae Kim and Sandra Oh crop up in support. We also get ridiculously cute “Con Baby” which…well, it’d take too long to explain and is more fun to discover in the course of the narrative. Suffice to say, your heart will melt.
In terms of story, Raya is a little episodic and spends a lot of time explicating its setting rather than pushing its characters forward. This is one film where the sequel may improve on the original, simply because all the place-setting has been done. Thematically, however, it’s remarkably of the moment: if ever we could use a story about the importance of trust and faith in humanity in the face of a devastating pandemic, it’s now.
On balance Raya and the Last Dragon works better as a world to be experienced rather than a story to be followed, but that feels like a backhanded compliment. It may not be perfect but it’s still an excellent time; this is one dragon that’s definitely worth chasing.