Raya and the Last Dragon

When an evil force known as Druuns threatened Kumandra, the dragons who lived peacefully with humans sacrificed themselves to save humanity by creating the Dragon Gem, leaving it with their sister Sisu.  Five hundred years later Kumandra, now fractured into five separate lands, faces the same threat after Chief Benja’s (voice of Daniel Dae Kim) attempt at unity results in the Gem being shattered, it pieces snatched by other leaders.  It is up to his daughter, armed only with her enchanted father’s sword, her friend Tuk Tuk and one fifth of the gem, to reunite the pieces in “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Laura's Review: B+

If one reads Disney’s press notes synopsis their latest sounds a lot like “Mulan” crossed with “How to Train Your Dragon.”  It is, therefore, a pleasurable surprise to discover that while its overly simplistic message is only suitable for very small children, writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”) have crafted a rousing adventure featuring a most untypical dragon.  The Southeast Asian inspired mythical land of Kumandra, now separated into Benja’s bountiful Heart, island nation Fang, spiky insular Spine, marketplace crossroads Talon and the farthest flung desert-like Tail, is stunningly realized with such wonders as rolling dunes and a strikingly abstract red maple forest.

Directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting) kick things off with Raya narrating Kumandra’s history, told visually with animation based on Indonesian shadow puppets.  Five hundred years later, warrior-in-training Raya manages to sneak a foot past her father’s protection of the Dragon Gem.  He proudly declares her a Guardian of the Gem.  He also invites the other four nations to come to Heart and little Raya quickly makes friends with Namaari, the daughter of Fang’s Chief, who gifts her with her Sisu pendant.  That is but a ploy, though, and Namaari’s betrayal causes the Gem to be broken.  Druuns, whirling black clouds, also return, turning Benja into stone like the dragons of old.

Six years later we find Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) riding her old friend Tuk Tuk (voice of Alan Tudyk), a creature that looks like a pill beetle crossed with a chipmunk bearing antennae (the rolling armored creature looks like something out of “Star Wars,” a fitting vehicle for Tran).  In a cave, Raya is able to call forth Sisu (the unmistakable voice of Awkwafina), not a legend, but a real dragon and one which can take human form when not around water.  Sisu is also something of an insecure goofball who Raya will learn values trust – much like her dad.  Keeping Sisu’s rasher impulses at bay, Raya procures a second Gem piece from an ingeniously intricate booby trap just before the arrival of her old nemesis Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan).

Raya, Sisu and Tuk Tuk get away, boarding a boat piloted by Boun (voice of Izaac Wang) (and powered by Sisu underwater using her magical water dragon powers).  Raya’s entourage grows as she travels from one land to the next including one of Disney’s best sidekick groupings to date in con artist baby Little Noi (voice of Thalia Tran) and her mischievous band of half-monkey half-catfish Ongis.  Adding contrast to Noi is Tong (voice of Benedict Wong), a seemingly dumb brute who is not what he appears to be.  They make for a marvelously entertaining group.

Sisu directs them all back to Heart where she will convince Raya that trust is the only way forward and if the film’s unity message, an obvious response to Trumpism, is simplistic, the filmmakers pull off a moving climax.  As the film makes clear that it is humankind who has brought this devastation upon themselves, there are echoes of real wars in “Raya,” its Druuns reminiscent of a nuclear cloud, its victims turned to stone of Hiroshima.  The animation is often wondrous, young Raya and Namaari’s sculpted and shaved hair adorned with hair jewelry far more intricate than their big-eyed facial features (the characters’ adult renderings are more realistic than anything we’ve seen from Disney animation before though).  Extreme camera angles on baby Noi accentuate the film’s humor.  James Newton Howard’s (“News of the World”) eclectic score buoys the tale with inventive flourishes, avoiding the generic pitfall of Jhené Aiko’s original rollout tune ‘Lead the Way.’

“Raya and the Last Dragon” may have echoes of Disney past in its DNA, but its female protagonists, multiculturalism and slick animation also mark it as Disney’s future.

Robin's Review: B+

"Raya and the Last Dragon" debuts on 3/5/21 on Disney+ with Premier Access and in theaters.