Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON
Rated PG, 107 minutes
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON acts as a tribute to Disney’s patented style of timeless, grand and immersive storytelling. But it’s also a pioneering picture, embracing timely, compassionate sentiments on our contemporary culture. Part rambunctious road trip movie, part coming-of-age dramedy, this big scale, epic action-adventure is centered on a young woman restoring trust in a humanity divided by selfishness and prejudice. Spirited, humorous and heart-filled, containing compelling heroes’ journeys, engrossing stakes, thrilling action and absolutely breathtaking animation, it’s got a celebratory, deeply resonant drive.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is a plucky, enterprising and intelligent young woman with a warrior’s heart. Her hot, idealistic dad, Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), trained her to guard a very precious stone, called the Dragon’s Gem, just like he and his forefathers have done for generations. This glowing orb has a history. 500 years ago, the fantasy world of Kumandra was a magical place where humans and dragons co-mingled. That is until an unspeakable evil called The Druun (a.k.a. a metaphor for hate, intolerance and insidious disease) arrived to destroy the sanctity and harmony of the land. Legend has it that the last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) concentrated all her magic into this one jewel and eradicated the pestilent purple plague, restoring the human populace, but sacrificing herself in the process. All that’s left of the dragons’ previous presence is the gem, which protects folks from another Druun onslaught, but has been misinterpreted to bring prosperity to whatever tribe has possession of it. Kumandra’s residents have since fought to acquire it, dividing the land into five bordering sections: Heart, where Raya lives; Tail, a desert inhabited by sneaky mercenaries; Talon, a trading port occupied by fighters and thieves; Spine, a freezing forest guarded by massive, multi-weaponed warriors; and Fang, the fiercest, most cunning of assassins.
On the day Raya has been baptized as the next guardian of the gem, Benja has assembled the rulers of the four other lands in hopes to unite them in a celebration of food and culture. The goal is to put aside their bigotry to heal divides, trust each other again and restore the kingdom. He’s met with resistance until Raya reaches out to Namaari (voiced by Jona Xiao in her younger years, Gemma Chan in her slightly older years), the daughter of Fang’s ruler, and the two become fast friends. However, peace doesn’t come easy. Namaari is quick to betray Raya’s trust, leading to the fracturing of the Dragon Gem and the Druun reappearing, turning many to stone – including Raya’s father. Raya’s years-long quest has called her to locate and reawaken Sisu (who’s been rumored to be in a sleep stasis) and enlist her help to restore Kumandra.
The set-up of the internal and external stakes and conflicts tends to be slightly too exposition-heavy, but that’s easy to forgive, given its context and fascinating world-building. Themes revolving around trust, bravery, courage and empathy are infused into the picture in eloquent ways by directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen. Metaphorical context about preserving the light in darkness resounds, as does the allegorical mirroring of our own broken world, ruptured by hate, greed and self-interest. Thankfully, it’s gentle, yet profound messaging. It also blessedly subverts the “two women fighting” trope, showcasing that Raya and Namaari’s aims are both righteous. And don’t worry. There’s lots of levity, between the sequence that features color bomb farting fireflies (“Toot N’ Booms”), and Sisu’s comedic, Genie-esque antics.
Not only do Raya and Sisu’s arcs entail discovering virtues hidden inside themselves that speak to their familial legacies (Raya’s sword being that of her father’s and Sisu’s unlocking her siblings’ powers), the group they gather during their travels and travails also points to the notion that a family can be created. In Tail, they meet-cute young shrimp boat captain Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang). In Talon, Raya encounters toddler con artist Little Noi (voiced by Thalia Tran) and her band of catfishing monkeys, the Ongi. And in Spine, they meet intimidating but lonely Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong). All of the supporting characters’ motivations, while a tad redundant, connect to and enrich Raya and Sisu’s struggles. Plus, fulfilling the adorable animal sidekick role that films of this ilk need, Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk) makes for a dauntless companion.
The choreography of the combat sequences between Raya and Namaari is elegantly conceived and executed. Subtle lighting cues change from warmth to a cooler temperature depending on the emotional pull of the narrative moods. God is in the details when it comes to the lighting and staging of these martial arts fights, which are also reflective of a melting pot of styles coming together as one, demonstrating thematic content in action.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets, at the same time as it is released in select theaters on March 5.