When we first meet Raya, she is alone—alone, with the exception of her giant roly poly friend, Tuk Tuk. This image of a lone warrior traveling through a desolate landscape on a quest is an iconic one (the familiarity of which the Raya immediately acknowledges), but the endgame is not that Raya remains a mysterious and singular figure who saves the day and then moves on. Raya makes connections throughout her journey, ones with those she has newly met and those she used to know, and it’s the trust she builds with them that is the driving force behind the film she is at the center of, “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Disney Animation’s newest feature is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and is set in Kumandra, a fictional land based on Southeast Asian countries. A prologue narrated by Raya (who’s voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) tells us the tale of what happened 500 years ago: humans and dragons lived in harmony, until the arrival of an evil force called the Druun, which turns every being it touches into stone, led to the dragons sacrificing themselves to save humanity. The last dragon left, Sisu, concentrated all her magic into a gem to protect everyone; but, as Raya says, “people being people,” they fought over the gem, leading to Kumandra splitting into five separate kingdoms.
Fast forward 500 years, and Kumandra is now made up of the lands of Talon, Spine, Tail, Fang, and Heart, with Heart, led by Raya’s father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), possessing the dragon gem. The kingdom lands may be rather on the nose (each represent a part of the dragon, but still, Heart good, Fang bad), but Benja truly believes that they can all unite and become Kumandra again. And Raya does too, until a betrayal of her trust leads to a destructive event that brings about the return of the Druun. After this, the film jumps ahead another six years; Raya is now older, and much more guarded with her trust, as we now return to the lone warrior we saw at the very beginning of the movie. Armed with a fragment of the dragon gem, she travels the world pursuing a rumor that the dragon Sisu may still be alive and can help humanity once more.
This sounds like a lot of jumping around in time, but it’s necessary for us to not only understand the history of Kumandra and the dragons, but also to witness what Raya’s life as a child was like to know how she became the woman she now is. Raya grew up in a prosperous kingdom with a loving father, and believed that she was doing the right thing by opening up to the people from another kingdom. The one time she was wrong, which resulted in her losing almost everything, has completely changed her perspective. But when she does meet Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the enthusiastic dragon’s willingness to see the good in all of humanity forces Raya to confront her feelings. The film also includes a wide variety of fun supporting characters, several of whom Raya adds to her crew throughout the story. There’s Boun (Izaac Wang), a young boy who runs a boat restaurant in Tail and is a savvy entrepreneur; Noi (Thalia Tran) a con artist from Talon who also happens to be a baby; and Tong (Benedict Wong), one of the formidable giants of Spine. They all have their own unique skills and quirks, but they all also have something in common with Raya: each of them lost their loved ones to the Druun, and are now on their own. Their loss has perhaps even hardened them as it did Raya (I mean, I don’t think Noi would be a con baby if her mother was still around). And Raya has to learn to work together with them too if they are going to succeed.
A large chunk of the success of “Raya” is due to Tran’s exuberant voiceover performance in the lead. She is every bit the hero every second of the film: fierce, smart, and noble, but with a sense of humor and an ability to recognize kindness despite all she’s been through. Awkwafina’s distinctive voice is perhaps a little too recognizable for this film, but she imbues her character with a self-deprecating sense of humor and enthusiasm that is a good foil to the more cautious Raya. Almost the entire cast, in fact, is comprised of Asian or Asian American actors, with the exception of Disney Animation’s lucky charm Alan Tudyk, who provides the voice of Tuk Tuk. Among those not already mentioned are Namaari (Gemma Chan), the warrior princess of Fang and Raya’s chief rival, and her mother Virana (Sandra Oh). As fantastic as that is, it is notable that despite this film and its characters being based heavily on Southeast Asian culture, the majority of the voice actors with the exception of Tran are of East Asian descent. That might sound like an easy thing to forgive in a film where we don’t actually see the actors’ faces, but it’s a dangerous indicator of how Hollywood frequently likes to lump all Asian people, together, and shows how representation can always be pushed further. In this regard, “Raya” is not as progressive as it could have been.
“Raya” does appear to get a lot of other aspects of Southeast Asian representation right, however, particularly in the design of its environments and characters. Despite the fact that this story is set in a fictional world, the inclusion of some real world touches, from the architecture to the food we see throughout the movie makes a big difference. The production team made research trips to several Southeast Asian countries, but I think the inclusion of people from those countries in key roles is a major reason why so much of “Raya” works. The film was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, who are from Vietnam and Malaysia, respectively, while Thai artist Fawn Veerasunthorn served as the head of story. Composer James Newton Howard, meanwhile, may not be Asian, but his score goes hard; it’s a sound that’s quite unique from the music we’ve heard in previous Disney films.
It’s no surprise that “Raya” looks beautiful from start to finish. The film utilizes a couple of different animation styles in different parts of the film; the prologue detailing the history of Kumandra has a puppet-inspired look, while a segment describing each of the different factions of Kumandra uses a 3D that looks like 2D style that is distinct from the rest of the movie. The design and look of each of the factions is unique to the point that they are all easily distinguishable from each other; one of my only selfish regrets of the movie is that we don’t get to spend more time with each one. There’s also a nice variety of silhouettes in the human character designs, and no Disney movie would be complete without at least a couple of adorable critter companions (Tuk Tuk is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, so cute). The fight choreography in the action scenes is impressively intricate, while the effects animation throughout the film helps sell the more magical elements.
“Raya” is an action-packed adventure, but it shines the most in the quite moments of reverence and introspection sprinkled throughout the film. There are a few things that could have been fleshed out a bit more, but for an animated movie approaching two hours, the pacing is spot on. As much infighting as there is between the humans, the Druun are the closest thing to a villain this movie has. Everyone in the movie, including Namaari, really want to help their people; they are just going about it the wrong way, and it is up to Raya and Sisu to get them on track. The film’s themes of trust and teamwork may be simple and obvious, but they are also important and beautiful. Sisu tells Raya halfway through the film that “if you want to get someone’s trust, you have to give a little trust first.” We all have the ability to bring people together; someone just needs to take the first step.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be playing in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on March 5. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG.
Also being released on Disney Plus on March 5 and in theaters alongside “Raya” is the new Disney animated short “Us Again.” Directed by Zach Parrish, this lovely film depicts an older couple who rekindle their love and passion for life through an evening of music and dance as they travel through a vibrant city. It’s beautifully lit and accurately choreographed.