Principal Cast : Kellie Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk, Sung Kang, Patti Harrison, Dichen Lachman, Jon Park, Sierra Katow, Ross Butler.
Synopsis: In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon.
Disney branches out in the name of ethnic diversity to tackle a story from the South-East Asian community (despite casting almost exclusively East Asian actors) with Raya & The Last Dragon, a visually sumptuous yet sporadically enthralling animated film designed as a four-quadrant epic that lacks the triumph of the studio’s recent hits even as it deftly mixes well-worn tropes and hit-and-miss humour. For a film so wonderful to look at, so pleasing to listen to and so attuned to giving cultural awareness to many SE-Asian communities – including Indonesian, Vietnamese and Phillipino (to name but a few), it disappointingly turns into a mishmash of ideas and narrative formulae that never quite coalesce into a compelling whole. A well-rounded and empathetic heroine, Raya, given voice by Kelly Marie Tran, and a loose-lipped water dragon, Sisu, brought to life by the crackle-voiced Awkwafina, make for an interesting yet predictably routine buddy-routine, while the central plot borrows from multitudinous quest narratives, keeping the film perfectly Disney-safe when it could have deviated enough to stand out from what has become an increasingly familiar studio pattern.
The utopian land of Kumandra is ravaged by the evil Druun, a race of evil spirits that turn whoever and whatever they touch to stone. The famous dragons of Kumandra use their powers to try and stop the Druun, but fail, although one lone dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) survives, whilst the population of Kumandra separates into five unique tribes, each with a piece of the mystical Dragon Orb, said to be able to return the stone dragons to life and bring Kumandra back. Years after her father was turned to stone, the Heart Tribe Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) travels the desolate landscape hoping to steal the missing orb pieces to bring Kumandra back, although she is hunted by Fang huntress Namaari (Gemma Chan), who wants the pieces for herself. Together with Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) and a gang of vagrant misfits – young shrimp boat owner Boun (Izaac Wang), warrior giant Tong (Benedict Wong), and baby con-artists Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and a trio of thieving monkeys – Raya and the reborn Sisu must unite the various tribes, gather the pieces of the orb and avoid contact with the inexorable Druun to return Kumandra, and their respective families, back to life.
Raya & The Last Dragon is a rare “princess” film to come from Disney in a long, long time to not feature the standard “five song musical” trope that arguably defined the studio’s formative and renaissance years. The film contains not a single character breaking into ditty, not a single break-the-fourth-wall moment of self-reflection or narrative clarity accompanied by an Alan Menken or Randy Newman tune, save for a final track, the Filipino-language “Gabay”, sung by popular rapper/songwriter KZ Tandigan. Whereas the soaring lyrics of Moana, the operatic soprano of Frozen and Frozen II, or the cute-as-a-button homilies of fare such as Home On The Range, Tangled or even Winnie The Pooh, Raya owes more to the likes of Zootopia, Big Hero 6 and Wreck It Ralph than its more kiddie-friendly brethren. As I said, for a film in which there are not one but at least two princesses at work here, this is a rare beast indeed.
The story is your basic quest narrative, with Raya’s journey to save her father – turned to stone during a frightening sequence to open the movie – being the prime motivator for her six-year journey. The six-year gap between the film’s opening, in which Raya barely escapes being turned to stone herself as a child, to becoming an adolescent woman in charge of her own destiny, seems like quite the trip for a woman to take throughout the film, but, as with more than one other thing here, the payoff not only doesn’t materialise, it makes no sense. The film sets the story up well, with the five various tribes of Kumandra coming together ostensibly in peace before a betrayal occurs shifting into a Homerian odyssey as an older Raya befriends the recalcitrant Sisu many years later.
Exactly why the story needed this six year gap between start and finish is never explained or reasoned out for the audience – Raya could have started the story at a similar age to when she finishes it and it would still have had the same emotional resonance. That, and at one point an infant child is returned to her mother after six years of being absent, which, when you think about it, makes no sense at all. As a quest film Raya & The Last Dragon works well because of the stakes on offer: the resurrection of Raya’s entire world is a fairly decent thing to desire, and the movie accommodates this emotional throughline via some pretty decent world-building early on. The cultural variances between each of the tribes indicates a similarity of humanity while respecting their differences – something we can all learn – and I think in this aspect the movie is particularly clever.
Where things fall in a hole, however, is everything else. Raya herself, voiced admirably by The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran, is an ambivalent yet purposeful hero, amiable when required whilst fierce in all things to do with the plot. Her fighting skills are particularly jw-dropping, as she spars physically with on-screen nemesis Namaari, brought to life by a grit-jawed Gemma Chan. The animosity between Raya and Namaari is borne of betrayal but the hatred is thinly developed, with the audience cued in on Namaari’s motivations without landing a connective emotional heartbeat. The role of Namaari’s mother, Virana, voiced by Grey’s Anatomy’s Sandra Oh, feels too hard-pushed to be a villain rather than earning it naturally: Virana ostensibly wants the same thing as Raya, the return of Kumandra, but only with a fascistic bent that doesn’t work so well the way it’s written, and the character motivations seem more written for the sake of themselves than a realistic human contrast.
Awkwafina, who rose to prominence off the back of her breakout Hollywood role in Crazy Rich Asians, proves yet again she’s the modern reboot of Eddie Murphy, her crackling voice and nonchalant delivery encapsulating what is both charming and aggravating about her. As Sisu, the snake-like water dragon, Awkwafina is both gently suitable and entirely at-odds with the mythological reverence the character might espouse, her glib one-liners and sidebar non-sequiturs working against the fluidity and nuance of the rest of the film. The character design is flawless – hell, the film’s visual palette is magnificent to say the least – and the animation on both human and animal characters sublime, but I didn’t buy the actress in the role for a single second. If anything, she took me out of the movie more often than not, almost tripping into pop-culture reference humour to ply her trade and that was almost a killer blow. Awkwafina is a mighty fine comedic actress (and a great dramatic one too, if word on the street is to be believed) but her voice work against the supreme artistry of Disney’s finest designers and animators is a juxtaposition no bridge can overcome.
Raya and Sisu aside, the movie is also populated (predictably, I guess) by a rag-tag bunch of cute anthropomorphised animals and dopey-or-devious supporting human characters. From the rotund baby with skiiiiiills, to the young kid operating his own sail barge, to the giant warrior who does very little warrior-ing, and the various tertiary roles aide, Raya & The Last Dragon ticks plenty of Disney-trope boxes before all is said and done. Maybe it’s just me, but it just didn’t seem to work this time. The enormous armadillo-like Tuk Tuk (which, much like its namesake, functions as a mode of transport for Raya) has vibes of past Disney sidekick roles, but the poor thing isn’t given the screen time to validate his position with Raya. It’s all cute and doe-eyed but ultimately feels like retreading the studio’s storied catalogue of other, better designs. Sidekick animals like Hercules’ Pegasus, Shrek’s Donkey, Ariel’s Sebastian, or even Jafar’s Iago, are more memorable in their own inimitable style than Tuk Tuk is, with the giant rolly-polly thing trading large-eyed anthropomorphism for Hei Hei-like “awww” moments that stretch too thin. Okay, so you have to consider that this is a film aimed at kids, primarily, but Disney has served up better characters in worse films and that makes this stuff all the more frustrating.
Raya & The Last Dragon has the significant redeeming feature in that it’s absolutely gorgeous. I know, I keep repeating that mantra with every new Disney Studio film released, but the attention to detail, animation style and design work is legitimately gob-smacking, and if nothing else it’s this that gives the film its biggest selling point. And for those of you who did enjoy the film more than I did, can we at least question the film’s rewatch factor, something you have to consider with everything Disney puts out. I’m not entirely sure Raya and her cohorts will garner much replay points in the months and years to come, as the film’s debut on Disney+ amid the glut of other attention-seeking fare makes it a tough ask to promote more highly. It’s a nice little film with very little problematic or offensive material within; it does a fair few things right on a technical level. But – and this might sound like me just being an asshole – the whole film feels like it’s just coasting: the Disney tropes (music aside) remain firmly embedded within Raya’s DNA, and the studio doesn’t deviate from this well-worn formula much at all. With the studio’s last truly great film, Moana, coming out nearly five years ago, maybe it’s time for a rethink of how the formula might progress and shift to facilitate progress in the streaming era.