Movies

Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

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Set in an idyllic realm of Kumandra, humans and dragons once lived in harmony.  When a monster plague called Druun appeared and turned humans into stone, the dragons teamed up to save the world but got wiped out in the process, except one dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”).  The dragons’ essence was distilled into a glowing orb to help preserve the future of mankind.   

500 years later, the once united land is divided into five kingdoms, named after key parts of a dragon – desert Tail, water-floating Talon, mountainous forest Heart, icy frigid Spine and sleek Fang.  Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the Heart princess, trained by her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to guard the dragon gem, which also contains Sisu’s spirit.  

When the clans convene, Raya is tricked by the Fang princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan, “Crazy Rich Asians”), whom she has befriended, into revealing the location of the orb.  When the tribes find out, it’s every tribe for itself, fighting for the orb.  The magical ball breaks and every tribe grabs each piece.  Drunn is unleashed, engulfing everything on its path and once again turning humans into statues.  

A half dozen years later, a grown-up Raya riding a gigantic pill bug Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) is seen traversing from one land to another, trying to find Sisu and the gem pieces.  When she finds Sisu, she discovers that the revered dragon is not all-powerful and actually more on the goofy side.  The shape-shifting water dragon is quickly attached to Raya’s side, delivering zany one-liners and teaching moments.   

Raya unintentionally assembles a ragtag team across her adventures to help her collect and unite the broken gems in order to return Kumandra into life – young porridge restaurateur Boun (Izaac Wang), baby pickpocket Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her cute animal sidekicks, and giant Tong (Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange”).

Fang, however, proves to be a formidable foil.  The one-on-one fights between the warrior princesses look fiercely realistic.  Still feeling betrayed by Namaari, Raya learns Sisu’s belief in the inherent goodness of others; she has to learn to move on and trust again, putting aside individual differences.  Namaari also learns about the power of trust, and unity for the collective good of humanity.  

The varied landscapes are lavishly illustrated and resplendently lit, resulting in sceneries with distinct color palettes and character.  The dragons soar and frolick fluidly, to the likes of “How to Train Your Dragon.”  The floating market, shrimp congee, family style meals, bamboo straw hat, keris-inspired sword, martial arts and music that fuses Southeast Asian instruments are easily recognizable elements from the region.  

Growing up in Southeast Asia, I couldn’t recall any movies about the region that made it global.  Even after migrating to the United States and living here for more than a couple of decades, it wasn’t until “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018 that Southeast Asia was put on the map.  

While “Raya and the Last Dragon” is set in a melting pot of mystical landscapes and composite cultures, kudos to Disney for realizing a luxuriantly rendered animation, bringing together the diversity of Southeast Asian countries.  It’s reported that directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos Lopez Estrada spent time trekking through the areas to gain inspirations for the movie.  The studio also utilizes Asian American and Southeast Asian talents; voice actors, writers, singers and music producers in creating the movie.  

If there’s a minor reservation, “Raya and the Last Dragon” takes a very simplistic view of the morale of the story, but humans are not always black or white and the world is considerably more complex.  

Despite its regional cultural focus, trust is a universal theme and it has the power to heal broken bonds and strengthen relationships.  And creating a better world is not a solo venture; it takes a village. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is freshly inclusive, lush and adventurous.

Copyright (c) 2021. Nathalia Aryani

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic (rottentomatoes.com/critic/nathalia-aryani). She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com.

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