by Philip Price
Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs & John Ripa
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina & Gemma Chan
Runtime: 1 hour & 47 minutes
The latest Disney princess to enter the chat is a Southeast Asian princess named Raya and she absolutely rules. It's always impressive when storytellers can manipulate your standard archetypes to somehow create what are still compelling characters experiencing fanciful if not familiar situations that they somehow manage to derive a particular meaning or elicit a specific theme from. That all to say, “Raya and the Last Dragon” isn't necessarily anything audiences haven't seen before, but it's so well thought out and so well executed that it makes the tropes it takes advantage of feel exceedingly fresh as if one were experiencing them for the first time. It also doesn't hurt the film was inspired by cultures from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos among others which inherently adds a certain vigor and resonance to the piece. It's abundantly clear how much the representation in the film mattered to its makers given ‘Raya’ is Disney's first feature film inspired by Southeast Asia as the creative team that was put in place - namely screenwriters Adam Lin (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Qui Nguyen - brought as much experience as they did research to the table. Having writer's representative of the culture at the heart of the story lends the film certain subtleties, nuances, and truths it would undoubtedly have gone without otherwise. The film’s strongest trait isn't how focused it is on diversifying the Mouse House's princess portfolio, but rather how seamlessly it integrates these cultures into Disney's age old formula while remaining true to the ancestry and traditions that have inspired this variation on the hero's journey. There is a difference in representation and concentration though, and while the representation in ‘Raya’ certainly matters what makes it even more exceptional is how the film doesn't concentrate solely on the culture by placing it at the center of the narrative, but more by building the context of the story in a land many will consider fictional, but who just as many will recognize as home. ‘Raya’ treats all princesses equal by giving the titular Asian princess as rousing an adventure as Mulan and as moving a quest as Elsa with nary a prince or romantic subplot in sight. In short, the representation occurs by using the tropes of the action/adventure genre to enlighten non-Asian audiences to a culture that isn't their own. By showcasing the importance of trust as its primary theme, delivering beautiful visuals that are meaningful even if all may not fully realize or comprehend why, as well as simply being a positive portrayal of what said trust, optimism, and understanding can do for the world “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a near-perfect film that takes the best of what movies have to offer and delivers them in spades if not necessarily breaking the mold.
Set in the fictional fantasy land of Kumandra where humans and dragons once lived together in harmony, “Raya and the Last Dragon” opens with one of those quick history lessons that explains how some five hundred years ago the five tribes of Kumandra lived harmoniously alongside both one another as well as dragons - magical creatures who brought them peace - until a sinister plague known as the Druun showed up and threatened the land by consuming life and turning everyone they touched to stone. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity, with one among them known as "The Mighty Sisu" concentrating all her magic into a gem that destroyed the Druun and returned everyone who had turned to stone back to life, that is, all except for the dragons. Now, those five hundred years later, the tribes continue to fight over Sisu's gem so as to possess the last remnants of dragon magic. It is at this point Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim) is introduced as the Chief of Heart, the key guardian of Sisu's dragon gem, Raya's father, and a leader who is hopeful he might reunite Kumandra by showing the other lands they are all fighting for the same thing, but the other lands view Heart as prosperous due only to their possession of the dragon gem and therefore see themselves on the defensive for while they may ultimately be fighting for the same thing they're also all trying to protect one another from the same thing as well: their people. It is shortly after Benja has initiated Raya into the family tradition of being a guardian of the dragon gem that Benja informs his daughter he has invited the other lands to Heart in hopes of coming to a truce with one another and moving forward. The five lands consist of Tail which is apparently a sweltering desert with sneaky mercenaries that fight dirty, Talon is a floating market famous for thieves and expert swordsman, Spine is a frigid bamboo forest guarded by exceptionally large warriors and their giant axes, and then there is Fang - Heart's fiercest enemy - who protects their land with angry assassins and their even angrier felines. While Benja's optimism is admiral his trust is ultimately taken advantage of by Virana (voice of Sandra Oh) and her daughter Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan), the Chief and princess of Fang, whose betrayal summons the Druun leaving it up to Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) to track down Sisu - the last dragon - and stop the Druun for good.
While that all may sound a little exposition heavy the directing duo of Don Hall - a director on “Big Hero 6” and “Winnie the Pooh,” who also served as a co-director on “Moana” - and Disney new-hire Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) ensure the style elevates the technique and more than feeling overwhelmed with information the viewer simply feels welcomed into this re-imagined earth where ancient civilizations have been simplified and the mythology made anew. At just over an hour and 45 minutes (including credits) Hall and Estrada have little time to quarrel over extraneous gags, details, and character work which by and large makes every joke, piece of world-building, and character introduction not only something vital, but something special. By the fifteen-minute mark the stage that is Raya's quest has been set and by the twenty-five-minute mark Sisu (voice of Awkwafina) has arrived shifting the entirety of that quest into overdrive. In Fang's betrayal of Heart Sisu's gem was broken - each of the lands taking a piece - and Raya has been searching for Sisu at the end of all the rivers of Kumandra where she'd rumored to have fled in order to create another gem and bring back everyone who had turned to stone. The issue is, Sisu doesn't turn out to be as "mighty" as the legends and myths made her out to be leaving Raya, her sidekick Tuk Tuk (Disney go-to guy Alan Tudyk), and Sisu with no other option than to travel across all five lands of Kumandra to reunite the individual pieces of the broken gem. As alluded to before, it is in how the film takes advantage of the tropes it enlists and makes them work for the story rather than against it that allows ‘Raya’ to not only feel like something of a throwback akin to the likes of ‘Indiana Jones,’ but given the multitude of cultures and other influences alive in the film it also tends to resonate that much more. For instance, it's something of a predictable story arc that as Raya and Sisu travel from one land to the next they are going to encounter new friends, representatives of sorts, from each place that will join them on their trek yet instead of feeling tired and laborious Hall and Estrada along with Lin and Nguyen's screenplay give each of these new birds of a feather a real reason to flock together.
Beginning in Tail, Raya and Sisu are rescued by Boun (voice of Izaac Wang) a precocious (in all the best, most positive ways) young man who has taken the initiative to not only take over the role of Captain on what we can presume was his family's ship before the rest of them were turned to stone, but to turn it into a fledgling restaurant due to his passion for cooking. Boun rescues his new friends from the clutches of Namaari, providing them refuge and food without a second thought. When entering Talon it's unclear how Little Noi (voice of Thalia Tran), a baby thief with a herd of monkey henchmen, will fit into this quick-forming fellowship, but naturally the thread that each of their losses is not only similar, but that their pain is as well begins to allow the walls between each of them to dissipate. It's something of a bold creative choice as well - going with a baby capable of scaling rooftops and hopping fences in what are essentially pick pocket attempts - but if you're going to make this a fantasy realm, then why not go for it, right? Fortunately, and once again, this never feels hackneyed or corny in the ways it so easily could have, but rather Noi and her animal sidekicks feel as genuine to the world of Kumandra and the plight of Raya as everything else in the film that lends a foundation to the repairing of this broken world through the power of trust. Spine is the last stop on our hero's journey back to Heart and it is in Spine that audiences are introduced to Tong (voice of Benedict Wong); a character wholly meant to teach the age old lesson of never judging a book by its cover. Though Tong is certainly an exceptionally large warrior who no doubt has a giant axe hanging in his house, he has no use for it anymore as he essentially has no village left to defend. Tong is the last of the people of Spine and it is when he joins our protagonist and her crew that something Raya's father said to her early in the film becomes all the more meaningful. "Don't mistake spirit for skill," Benja told his daughter while training her to become a guardian of the dragon gem, but in the union of these four lands we see how the scales of spirit and skill have balanced creating in them a force more powerful than fear, ultimately fulfilling the hope Benja had for all the people of Kumandra.
It is this kind of symmetry, this type of top-tier storytelling that takes “Raya and the Last Dragon” from what could have easily been a somewhat by-the-numbers good vs. evil scenario to something genuinely fantastic and meaningful. We all know it's about the journey, not the destination and it is through Raya's journey and all the elements invested in making it more significant than the next Disney princess tale on the conveyor belt that continue to make Disney itself the exception to whatever rule there once was. Hall, Estrada, and everyone on their crew pack this jaw-droppingly gorgeous journey with humor in all the right and unexpected places. Awkwafina is of particular note in this regard as the titular last dragon who embodies the flipside of Tong's "don't judge a book by its cover" coin. Further, both the action pieces and martial art exchanges are executed cleanly and with clear care that they in turn create some of the more memorable sequences in recent animated memory as, much the same case with its tone, they tend to elicit these kinds of giddy reactions from children where they can't believe the fun, exciting nature of what's unfolding before their eyes whereas adults will be made nostalgic for those simpler, more boundless times. James Newton Howard's score is also of note for the different themes and moods it brings to each of the lands of Kumandra that only further integrate the audience into this world. It's almost more impressive “Raya and the Last Dragon” appears as seamless as it does given the tumultuous production the film faced, but one would never know of any behind-the-scenes drama as it has impacted the final product in no apparent way given the film's ability to not only deliver entertainment but speak to a trust that comes from the idea of an authentic community, of a commitment to taking care of one another - a lesson that couldn't have come at a better time. There’s a moment in the final act, the moment of triumph if you will, that is so cool - aesthetically, musically, and narratively - that it reinforces how well everything about “Raya and the Last Dragon” has been constructed due to how beautifully everything comes together and beautiful it indeed is.