Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” available this week in a limited theatrical release and on Disney+ for an additional fee, is a great adventure. Blending imagery and mythology from several Southeast Asian cultures into its own vision, this is an ambitious family film that will work for all ages, and one that never puts its audience down while presenting them with an entertaining and thought-provoking story. It also contains some of the most striking imagery Disney has ever produced, dropping its characters into a world that feels classic and new at the same time.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has long heard the story of the last dragon from her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). While evil forces are at work across the land, turning people to stone, magical dragons unite their powers into stone and the one named Sisu uses it to stop the pending apocalypse. He sacrificed himself in the process, although rumors persist that he survived. The stone was with the people of Benja and Raya when the film started, but another clan in a now divided world stole it, broke it into pieces, and scattered it across the land.
Along the way, they are chased by the daughter of a clan seeking full power named Namaari (Gemma Chan), and meet some impressive support characters, including the gregarious Boun (Izaac Wang), the one-eyed Tong (Benedict Wong), and even a “cheat baby,” a kid who uses his undeniable cuteness as an alley conman. All of these living characters are affected by rock fragmentation, and they form an unforgettable core in what is essentially an ancient adventure film reminiscent of everything from Indiana Jones to “Princess Mononoke.”
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Directors Don Hall (“The Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”) inspired every element of the design of “Raya and the Last Dragon” with the utmost craftsmanship. Every land that Kingdom and his compatriots explored felt like a fully realized world. Yes, he bears a strong resemblance to the dragons we’ve seen in Asian cinema before—it’s hard not to think of “Spirited Away” when he takes on his own flying form—but he finally stands on his own, thanks in part to how his design blends in with Awkwafina’s fantastic sound work. . He’s expressive without being too cartoonish. All “Raya” has that—a vibrant color palette and an incredible level of detail that never pushes too far into the fantasy elements, striking the perfect balance.
That balance is maintained because screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim don’t get lost in their new animated playground, and never lose sight of the story’s emotional stakes. This is a witty film about one of the great themes of our time—the search for unity. Social and political reading of the film will abound as it is about trying to find common ground and cause again after betrayal and division. is usually given. Is fear the result of unbelief or is it the cause? Are we divided because we are enemies or because we say we are enemies?
This is a rare critique of studio animation, but “Raya and the Last Dragon” can sometimes be too dense with themes. The characters and storytelling are very strong, but sometimes I wish “Raya” would allow for a quieter development than the dangerous move that Hall and Estrada chose. He has a habit of over-explaining himself when his imagery and narrative get the job done.
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