Film Review – Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) is a superb animated fantasy adventure. Borrowing elements from a number of Southeast Asian cultures, the story brims with color, life, and imagination. There is a sense of wonder and discovery within each location, as though every detail has a history behind its existence. The narrative itself maybe familiar – incorporating themes of loss, hope, friendship, and trust – but that is only a minor issue in what is an overall great production. This was a total blast to watch. Movies of this caliber don’t come often, but when they do, cinema is made better because of it.
The great fantasy adventures all share a common trait: excellent world building. This film belongs in that category. The direction (Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa), screenplay (Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim), art design and animation team construct the different facets of this universe with amazing depth. There is almost too much to take in with one viewing. We are given an extensive opening prologue, detailing a realm known as Kumandra where humans and dragons once coexisted together. However, a plague of evil monsters known as the Druun disrupted the balance, wiping out nearly all of the dragons and causing a rift between the various Kumandran peoples. Each group now live separately, in constant war for power and control.
Visually, each section of Kumandra is rendered with beautiful nuance. One group exists in a golden desert, another resides underneath an enormous oval mountain. We visit villages built on bamboo poles above water, others are hidden deep within a snowy forest. The character designs make each land distinct but all part of a whole. We can see how each group developed on their own but still belong to the same heritage. These places feel lived in, as though they are alive and operating outside of the main story.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young warrior whose family was one of the many who suffered the Druun’s wrath. When the Druuns return to cause further destruction, Raya takes it upon herself to gather several magical gems from across all of Kumandra to summon Sisu (Awkwafina) the last dragon. Legend has it that Sisu’s magical powers will help stop the mayhem and unite Kumandra once and for all. Along the way, Raya meets a number of friends willing to help, such as the hulking Tong (Benedict Wong), a young Boun (Izaac Wang) who runs a food shop on his riverboat, and the mischievous Little Noi (Thalia Tran) a baby who also happens to be an exceptional thief. Things get complicated when Namaari (Gemma Chan) – member of a rival clan – goes on the hunt for the gems as well, willing to take Raya down if need be.
Whew, that’s a lot to cover, isn’t it? Luckily, the writing and direction are strong enough to establish motivations clearly without getting muddled within the breadth of information. At its heart, the narrative focuses on the idea of trust. Raya must trust her new friends to help her along her journey. Each different land within Kumandra has felt the negative effects of their distrust. The theme is not subtle, but it is effective. The central image – of a person’s hands coming together in a circle – is an obvious metaphor for humanity coming together. More can be accomplished when we are one instead of broken pieces. It’s a nice, straightforward message, but it isn’t emphasized so much that we feel like we’re beaten over the head with it. It feels organic to the story, which only serves to enrich it.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen dragons portrayed the way they are here. For one, they’re covered in fur instead of scales, and feature light pastel colors. Instead of breathing fire, they breathe fog and smoke. They look more like furry, Easter-egg colored seahorses than what we traditionally think of in sword and sorcery epics. Are these deliberate changes meant to appeal to a younger Disney audience? That may very well be. The dynamic between Raya and Sisu is good, but not substantial. Their relationship might be the one weak link. They have strong character development individually, but their connection felt born out of storytelling necessity. Sisu is portrayed with a modern twist. Hearing her talk about Raya being her “BFF” and how her fur glows “like a nightlight” causes us to break away from the fantasy. The best human/dragon friendship still belongs to the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, but this one holds its own despite being a tad underwhelming.
I had a lot of fun with Raya and the Last Dragon. There is plenty of action, comedy, and heart while still maintaining a positive central message. Hopefully this will go down as one of the great adventure films, one that will place a solid footprint in pop culture and inspire others like it to come to the forefront.