Animation is a medium in which is not limited by imagination. If you can think of it, you can make it happen on screen. The best animated stories have bright, imaginative worlds populated with endearing, relatable characters, and a story that appeals to young and old alike; and most importantly a theme that makes the whole thing work in our world, too.
Raya and the Last Dragon is one of these animated stories. Set in a world inspired by a variety of south-east Asian cultures, and following a young woman on a quest to repair a world torn apart by lack of trust, this movie is the real deal. Shocking, I know.
The heroine Raya, voiced by national treasure Kelly Marie Tran, lives in the remains of Kumandra, a kingdom that 500 years before was splintered into five smaller nations when the dragons of the world sacrificed their lives to defeat an otherworldly enemy by creating a magical gemstone. The gemstone –later split into five pieces and scattered around the five nations– becomes the subject of the quest that Raya must go on to save the world again.
The setup is a fairly common one among fantasy stories. The young heroine, who was present when the world broke, quests to repair the damage and along the way makes friends with a ragtag group of other survivors: a pre-teen chef, a giant soft-hearted warrior, a baby and three monkeys, and the last dragon in existence, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina).
Let’s start in the obvious place: this movie is gorgeous. Computer-generated imagery seems to get better not just from year to year but from film to film, and this film is no exception. While the characters are obviously animated, much of the environment looks real, and the water animation is the best I can remember seeing. To be clear, when I say that the characters are obviously animated, that’s not a complaint either: the level of detail in each of them is incredible, especially in that of Sisu the dragon, whose hair flows with her every move is almost hypnotic to watch.
The action sequences are also superb, with martial arts scenes being shown mostly from wide angles with dynamic camera work that lets you follow all of what is going on, and a chase sequence in the middle that is the most fun thing I’ve seen in an animated movie since the action scenes in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
As with all Disney movies lately, the cast is pretty stacked, with Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, and Benedict Wong all along for the ride. Kelly Marie Tran is the heart of the film, though, and she pours herself into the role. Raya is grief-stricken and angry for most of the film, and while it would be easy for that to be one-dimensional, the writing and her performance elevate it to something special. Awkwafina is also great, in her usual reliable way, and is the perfect choice for the madcap but heartfelt Sisu.
What really makes the film, though, is that, along with the best animated films, Raya and the Last Dragon is about something: trust. The kingdom of Kumandra is broken, but it’s not the monsters that do it or the loss of the dragons; it’s the lack of trust between its people. Raya and Gemma Chan’s Namaari, princess of one of the five kingdoms, encapsulate this, with the lack of trust between them standing in for the lack of trust in the world. You may have figured out where the story is going by this point –apologies, I’m trying not to spoil anything– but even if you have, the journey to get there is expertly crafted and will be rewarding, especially for kids who are growing up in a real-world divided by distrust.
Despite their ongoing quest for cultural hegemony, I have been happy to around for this resurgence of Disney Animation. That is to say, I am happy that Disney is the Disney of animation again. I’m also glad that they seem taking the world we liv win seriously, and branching out to more influences. The world is made up of many peoples and cultures, and they all deserve representation on screen.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a step forward in this regard, and it happens to be a great movie, too.
Raya and the Last Dragon premieres as a premium rental on Disney+ and in theatres (where safe) this Friday, March 5th.
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