Combustible Celluloid
With: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chang, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk (voices)
Written by: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim, based on a story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa & Dean Wellins
Directed by: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
MPAA Rating: PG for some violence, action and thematic elements
Running Time: 108
Date: 03/05/2021

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Full-Scale Diversity

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The 59th Disney Animated feature film, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of only about a half-dozen from that last that showcases a little diversity.

Featuring almost entirely non-white characters, it's a gorgeous film, and enormously refreshing. It relies on a pretty worn-out old fantasy plot about a quest to find the pieces of the broken magical whatsis, but its positives handily outweigh that negative.

The movie opens Friday in some theaters, as well as on Disney+ for users who separately purchase the "Premier Access" status, for $29.99. Then, on June 4, it will be available to regular subscribers at no additional cost.

As with most fantasy films, this one opens with a generous dash of exposition. The story is set in the fictional Southeast Asian realm of Kumandra. Five hundred years ago, humans lived in harmony with dragons, and all was well.

Then, evil creatures called the Druun attacked, turning humans to stone. The dragons banded together and defeated the Druun, but in the process wiped out their entire number, except the last dragon of the title, Sisu.

The dragon's essence was contained in a glowing magical ball, which was meant to unite the people. Instead, they split into five warring tribes, each named after dragon parts: Heart, Fang, Tail, Spine, and Talon.

Centuries later, the scrappy young Raya, princess of the Heart realm, tries to prove to her father (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim, of Lost) — who is the current guardian of the ball — that she has what it takes to help out.

Unfortunately, her actions lead to the ball shattering into five chunks, which brings back the Druun. Raya's father is turned to stone, and she makes a new enemy: Namaari, princess of the Fang realm.

So, five more years later, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) has turned into a Mad Max-like warrior princess, scouring the wastelands for ways to bring her father back, and riding atop of her giant pill bug, Tuk Tuk (whose adorable clicky sounds were provided by Alan Tudyk).

She miraculously finds and frees Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina, of The Farewell), who turns out to be less of a warrior dragon than Raya hoped. Her dragon power? She's a really good swimmer.

On their quest to put the ball thingee back together, the pair assembles a ragtag crew of helpers. There's soft-spoken giant Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong, of Doctor Strange), the zippy ten-year-old Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang), who operates his own floating restaurant; and Little Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran), a baby pickpocket and her team of helper Ongis (described by the Disney Wiki as half-monkey, half-catfish).

They also meet the now-grown-up, and very badass Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan, of Crazy Rich Asians), who wants to control the dragon power herself.

Fantasy tales can get lost in their myriad of characters, backstories, and situations, but as helmed by directors Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6) — and with a screenplay by more writers than space allows listing — Raya and the Last Dragon moves briskly and cleanly.

It has swift, balletic battle scenes, and soaring, agile dragon-flight sequences that rival anything in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.

However, it could have used a bit more punch in the "sense of wonder" department. Collecting the pieces of a thingamajig is a fairly ancient plot device, and it's basically a countdown, rather than an awe-inspiring exploration.

The movie is also a little light on laughs. The nutty, sweet Awkwafina certainly keeps things lighthearted, but she rarely lands a spectacular joke. Oddly, the funniest character is arguably the ninja-like pickpocket baby, looking vaguely perturbed as she performs amazing, zigzagging feats of circus-like acrobatics.

Perhaps, though, the movie doesn't actually need to strain for laughs. Awkwafina's Sisu serves a far different purpose in this film than, say, Eddie Murphy's Mushu did in Disney's Mulan (1995). She's essential, and not just a silly sidekick.

What Raya and the Last Dragon absolutely has going for it is its sense of confidence, and its goodness. The idea of bringing back together splintered and deeply dissenting factions of society is an appealing and moving prospect right about now.

No, this is a film about pride — pride in both families and in cultures — and about hope.

It takes its place alongside Mulan, Lilo & Stitch (2001), The Princess and the Frog, and Moana (2016) as a game-changer, a chance to see different faces and hear different voices in a big animated Disney film. It's further proof that stories about non-whites are indeed universal.

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