‘It may feel impossible, but sometimes, you just have to take the first step; even before you’re ready.’
A lot has changed at Disney since the release of Toy Story, all the way back in 1995. The animation studio’s first feature length computer animated film diverged from the company’s traditional narrative history, moving away from stories more directly influenced by fairytales and classic literature, and took a step towards not only revolutionising the world of animated film through their relationship with Pixar, but also revolutionising their own approach to storytelling. That change took a step forward with the release of Frozen in 2013, and has continued through Moana and, now, Raya And The Last Dragon.
A long time ago, the people of the land of Kumandra were terrorised by a powerful evil called the Druun. They are saved by the land’s dragons, who channelled their magic through the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to create a magic orb that would trap the Druun forever; at the expense of the lives of the dragons. A power struggle for the orb splits the humans into 5 separate societies, named after their homes along a dragon-shaped river – Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine and Tail. 500 years later, the leader of Heart, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) invites the leaders of the other tribes to meet with him and his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), in a hope to unite the tribes once again under the name of Kumandra. They are betrayed, the Druun are freed, and the land is decimated once more; leading Raya to spend the next 6 years trying to find the last dragon once again…
Raya And The Last Dragon follows on in the new Disney storytelling tradition of expanding the moral of the story beyond the scope of contained romantic, familial relationships. Raya is not searching for her true love; she is searching for the key to saving everyone from a great danger. This narrative arc allows an exploration of a range of areas beyond that of a romance; and, indeed, there is no romantic structure to this narrative at all. Like Moana before her, Raya is a warrior princess; but unlike Moana, Raya’s journey will force her to confront her attitudes towards community and unity, to open her mind beyond the xenophobic attitudes she holds towards the other four tribes in order to defeat their ultimate foe. Kelly Marie Tran brings a lot out of this character, and really gets to grips with the nuance that is needed to evoke the diverse emotional range that Raya travels through during her journey; her bewildered excitement at actually finding Sisu contrasting neatly with the grim determination with which she approaches her quest, or with the rage she feels within herself towards those who she blames for landing the people of what should be Kumandra into this situation in the first place (while continuing to downplay her own role in the disaster). That’s a lot of heavy lifting for one actor to do on their own, and while Tran certainly puts her back into it, establishing the new relationship dynamic with Sisu early on allows Awkwafina to lend a hand. Sisu couldn’t be further away from Raya in terms of emotional range; excitable, positive and overly trusting, her personality is perfectly suited to Awkwafina’s delivery and personality. Her distinctive voice adds a sense of otherness to Sisu, the huskiness lending itself appropriately to a non-human character; and she portrays Sisu’s more child-like personality traits with much exuberance and enthusiasm, creating an excellent dynamic with Tran’s Raya.
Another similarity to Moana comes in the form of the film’s villainous threat, as once again, conflict is generated between human characters without making a human an overall villain. That conflict comes in the form of Namaari of the Fang tribe, voiced by Gemma Chan, who continues her excellent body of blockbuster work with another quality turn here. Raya and Namaari’s conflict comes from a place of betrayal and mistrust, with both characters believing they were wronged by the other; and Chan does an excellent job at elevating that conflict without giving a performance so overtly evil that the audiences loses empathy for her; on the contrary, Chan shows us enough softness beneath Namaari’s tough exterior that it’s hard not to root for an eventual reconciliation between the two characters, even though the tensions between them steadily get worse as the film goes on.
The actual villains, the Druun, are much less sympathetic; falling into the category of Amorphous Nightmares. They are not a constant presence on screen, but the damage they can do is firmly established early on, and their occasional appearances are well utilised, adding tension at key points and helping to drive forward the individual narratives for numerous characters at various different points. We also learn very little about their true origin, which is a benefit to the overall narrative; as the threat would be lessened if we truly understood where they came from; though the image of a mindless plague infecting people without remorse, trapping entire communities in their homes, perhaps hits a little close to home during a public health crisis if you allow yourself to think about it too much.
Raya, Sisu and Namaari are not the only characters we get to know in this piece; as Raya’s journey sees her collecting a number of other strays affected by the Druun calamity. Izaac Wang impresses as child restaurateur and boat captain Boun, Benedict Wong gives the kind of high-quality performance we have all come to expect as gargantuan barbarian Tong; with both characters (as well as a few other unexpected companions) adding contextual and emotional depth to the quest, while also being on hand for plenty of comic relief. The slowly-growing group influences each other at various intervals, inspiring character growth both as a team and on an individual basis, working alongside Raya and SIsu to try and restore the world to what it once was. Outside the core group, Daniel Dae Kim gives a calm and inspiring performance as Raya’s father, Chief Benja; and Sandra Oh is cold and considered as Namaari’s mother, Chief Virana. Both give some contextual background to the personalities of their respective daughters, grounding their conflict in more than just a personality clash, adding historical cultural attitudes that expand the lore of the world as a whole at the same time.
The worldbuilding is interesting, with each part of the journey taking place in each of the 5 tribe’s homelands; and there’s a diversity of settings which videogame fans in particular will recognise. Somehow this land has enough differing climates that there is both a desert wasteland and a snow-filled valley within relatively close proximity to each other; divided by a land of lush greens and a surprisingly vibrant water-based urban environment. While the geography itself may confuse, the differing locales do well to create variety on the journey, and also provide contextual context towards the cultural styles and attitudes of the tribes who dwell within them. The locales are beautifully realised; with the soft, warm glow of the urban marketplace of Talon contrasting harshly with the heavily fortified, snow-covered battlements of Spine, and it speaks to the diversity of cultural artistic styles which the design team were influenced by in bringing the project to life, with elements from various SouthEast Asian cultures being blended together to create a distinct and engaging style. The musical score also leans on that, with obvious SouthEast Asian influences being felt through the music, without it dissolving to the kind of lazy stereotyping that one might expect from a western score on a movie with such cultural influences and styles.
Raya And The Last Dragon stands tall in the tradition of Disney’s animated films, and represents another strong step forward for a company eager to demonstrate its willingness to create stories with a more diverse range of cultural influences. Raya is an engaging and enjoyable lead, with a stellar performance from a rising star in Kelly Marie Tran at her core. This film has a lot to say, both in terms of story and production, and the result of that effort is a fantastic addition to Disney’s back catalogue. If you’re able to see it in a theatre, I highly recommend you do so; if you are relying on Disney+ to catch this one, it’s up to you whether you wait for it to come off Premier Access or not – but if you have the extra cash to spare, it may well be worth the investment.