It seems like every year I make a pledge to invest more time and energy into animated movies. And it seems like every year I fail to honor that pledge. For reasons I can’t fully put into words, animated features rarely resonate with me in the same way they do for so many others. The ones I like I REALLY like. But so many have the same basic story structure and the same hyperactive approach to humor. Yes I know, they’re animated films and they’re made to also appeal to children. I’m not knocking them for that. But for me, the very things that give animated films their broad appeal are what often push me away.
Well, I can honestly say “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an animated movie I like. In fact I REALLY like this new adventure-fantasy from Walt Disney Animated Studios. This magical and touching feature from co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada taps into a lot of things people are looking for today – a strong female lead, representation, etc. But above all, “Raya” has a story pulsating with urgency. It uses its fantastical setting, cultural inspirations, and enormous heart to encourage us to keep our faith in humanity, to trust one another, and to come together as a people. At a time when left-wing and right-wing tribalism is running rampant, I can’t think of a more timely message.
The film tells the story of Raya (brilliantly voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess who you could say is a little bit Samurai and a little bit Indiana Jones. She’s a descendent of a family sworn to protect a sacred relic called the Dragon Gem. A prologue describes the river nation of Kumandra as a place where dragons and humans once lived in harmony until their land was invaded by creatures known as Druun who kill the world and turn people to stone. These swirling balls of purple gas were vanquished when the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Before doing so they transported their magic into the Dragon Gem which Raya’s people has protected for generations.
But the other four lands within Kamandra believe the Dragon Gem brings prosperity and they resent not having it for themselves. Raya’s optimistic father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) believes he can quell the friction and bring the five lands together. But mankind’s penchant for selfishness and distrust lead to fighting. The Dragon Gem is shattered, the Druun are let loose, and Kamandra plunges into chaos as many people are turned to stone including Raya’s father.
That all happens in the first 15 minutes. The bulk of the story takes place six years later as an angry and bitter Raya searches for a dragon named Sisu, believed to be the last of her kind. Raya believes if she can find Sisu and then reclaim the pieces of the Dragon Gem she will be able to rid the land of the Druun and save her father. But it’s easier said than done. When the Gem shattered it broke into five pieces with the leaders of the five lands of Kamandra each taking a shard for themselves. Raya has one piece, but she’ll need to travel to the other four lands Tail, Talon, Spine, and the most sinister Fang in order to reforge the Gem.
As you would expect Raya meets an assortment of interesting characters, some who join her on her journey. It starts off rocky once she finds Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). Their meeting begins with a scene reminding me of why I often groan at animated humor. Sisu bursts into the movie with a loud, silly, high-energy entrance. “Look, it’s a dragon full of goofy gag lines and speaking cringy modern-day slang!” My cynical side immediately kicked in expecting Sisu to be the film’s blaring non-stop comic relief. But to my surprise the filmmakers pull back and show incredible restraint. Sisu does shoot for some laughs along the way, but she’s hardly the one-note constant jokester I feared she would be.
This actually highlights one of the biggest strengths of “Raya” – the confidence it has in its story which shows most in the film’s willingness to be serious. It doesn’t feel the need for incessant gags, big musical numbers, or many other things animated movies will often lean on too heavily. It simply tells its story with sincerity and heart and without crutches. It also helps to have a wonderful array of supporting characters to fill out the world. Gemma Chan’s Namaari is the most compelling, a fellow warrior princess and Raya’s arch rival from the land of Fang. Izaac Wang is terrific voicing 10-year-old Boun, the charismatic captain of a boat/restaurant called the “Shrimporium”. Benedict Wong plays a brutish yet tender warrior named Tong. And of course we get a con-artist toddler and an armored roly-poly (I know how the last two sound. Just trust me.) They all fit nicely and have roles to play in Raya’s adventure.
And then there is the animation itself, some of the most visually striking work Disney has ever created. From the marvelous character designs to the richly textured world, the film’s visual presentation stuns on countless levels and transports us to a place of eye-popping wonder. The look of the dragons are the one weak point, but who cares when everything else is so vivid and detailed. It’s such a treat. And when considered alongside the smart direction, the thoughtful and affecting script from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and some great voice talent led by Kelly Marie Tran, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this isn’t an Oscar contender. And it’s only March! “Raya and the Last Dragon” premieres today (March 5th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access for $29.99.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS