Film Review: Raya and the Last Dragon is visually rapturous and fun, marking a minor step in representation

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a fantasy world called Kumandra; which was once inhabited by both humans and dragons in a harmonious existence. But, that peace comes under imminent danger when malevolent monsters known as the Druun make their presence known. To stave off the threat and save humanity, the dragons perform an act of sacrifice that stops the Druun on their tracks. The humans get their period of peace once again. However, through the next five hundred years, people go into war with each other over a remnant of the dragons called the Dragon Gem, which splits them up into five clans (Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang).

Our titular character Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) from the Heart Clan is bestowed as a guardian of the Dragon Gem by her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who wants peace in the land through unity of the five clans. But the return of the Druun as well as the greed in humanity does not make that an easy feat, and it is up to Raya to stop the Druun from destroying their world and save her people from them as well as themselves.

Following in the footsteps of providing ample representation (especially on South East Asia), Raya and the Last Dragon is a step forward in the right direction. In visual scope alone, the animation is a marvel to witness. With its loving reverential locales (including boating markets that resemble places in Thailand and Vietnam) to its attention to both world-building (the food in particular is well-realized i.e. the use of congee, the running joke about the dried jackfruit and the sights of durian) and even its action choreography (the notable use of martial arts including the copious use of 540-degree kicks, swordplay as well as weaponry including kris whip-swords); it is exactly the type of spit-sheen that refreshes the Disney storytelling formula.

There are some amusing jokes (particularly in terms of language) too, that some will appreciate. For example, the character of Noi (which means ‘speak’ in Vietnamese) is the name of a toddler con-artist who cannot speak discernibly and the two minor utterances in Vietnamese that characters say which expresses dismay (Oh troi).

It is however not a perfect representation. There are certain details in the film that feel out of place due to the filmmakers’ decision to place in elements that are relevant to Asian culture and yet feel cherry-picked and tacked on for a stylistic approach as opposed to being culturally accurate (eg. The use of kris whip-swords; the kris being from Indonesia and the whip-sword being from India).

The choices in casting (most of which are East Asian, despite the story being set in a place that is meant to resemble South East Asia) is also a flaw to the point that it feels mildly distracting at best and slightly disingenuous at worst. On a lighter note, it is possible that the filmmakers are aiming for the widest audience possible in terms of its casting but nevertheless, it is something that needs to be addressed accordingly.

As for its story, it follows a well-worn path involving a heroic protagonist defeating forces while overcoming her own personal demons; complete with cute sidekicks, toyetic [sic] feel, pop-culture jokes and a clear message. While the storytelling comes with almost solid-black foreshadowing that people will see coming, screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen manage to lay the groundwork in the characterizations with ample skill.

To be fair, the foreshadowing and lack of a soft approach in its conveying of themes are due to its allegiance to its demographic, but a little subtlety would have been beneficial to the storytelling. Furthermore, the pacing of the storytelling can be quite frenetic – presumably to keep the young audience from boredom and to make the long runtime palatable – but like the lack of subtlety, a softer approach in its pacing would have been beneficial in making the grace notes in the drama more substantial.

In terms of its characters, we do not see the lead ciphers we usually see in the Disney films of yore. In Raya and the Last Dragon, none of the lead characters are morally simplistic and they all have their own inner conflicts of mistrust and reliance on their fellow people. This makes the drama more convincing and emotionally stirring when those characters reach their moments of epiphany.

The message may have be done in many films (even the maligned Batman and Robin) but apart from moments where the foreshadowing is obvious as well as scenes that overplay the hand (i.e the overuse of flashbacks), the film earns its dramatic beats when all the pieces come into place. The stellar score by James Newton Howard – which is both suitably magisterial and somewhat retro in how it is reminiscent of 1980’s fantasy adventures – also seals the deal.

The cast all do a wonderful job in bringing their characters to life and even surprise considering their earlier body of work. Gemma Chan lends honesty to the part of Namaari; making her tenacity fun to watch and her conviction to her cause believable. The supporting cast of vast Asian talent including Dae Kim (whose voice will always be memorable to yours truly thanks to his work in the Tenchu videogame franchise), Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang all lend enthusiasm to their roles; particularly Wang as the energetic 10-year-old boat restaurant owner who specializes in congee.

But it is Tran and Awkwafina who make the film truly excel. Through all the racism and limited opportunities in Hollywood, Tran was always a talent, which is evident in her work in Star Wars – The Last Jedi and the series Sorry for Your Loss. Here in Raya and the Last Dragon, we hear more of her acting range as she portrays Raya as a spirited, conflicted and headstrong woman. The sense of optimism (her interactions with her pet pill bug [Armadillo? Pangolin? All three?] Tuk Tuk), cynicism (pushing those willing to support her away), cockiness (her interactions with her opponents are amusingly brash) and her sincerity are all beautifully delivered by Tran’s vocal work.

Awkwafina lends a great balance of levity and naivety to the part of Sisu, the titular last dragon who may be the true key to saving humanity. Providing a counterpoint to Raya’s hesitance in putting faith to those around her as well as lending amusing comic relief (that gradually veers away from pop-culture gags as the story chugs along), Awkwafina manages to make the character of Sisu transcend above its origins in being the wacky sidekick that is reminiscent of roles like the Genie in Aladdin and Mushu in Mulan.

To finish this review off on an amusing note, the character of Sisu is emblematic of the film itself; warmly approachable, slightly off-putting, eager to please, beautifully majestic, enjoyably vibrant and honest at heart. Raya and the Last Dragon is a boisterously entertaining fantasy adventure that is fun for the whole family. Highly recommended.

Raya and the Last Dragon

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Raya and the Last Dragon will be screening in cinemas March 4th and available on Disney+ through Premier Access on March 5th.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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