What will it take to unite a deeply divided land?
By Diana Beechener
Five hundred years ago, Kumandra was a nation of peace, protected by dragons. A plague known as the Druun invades the land, turning people and dragons to stone as it billows along. The last of the dragons infuse all of their magic into one gem, which the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina: Breaking News in Yuba County) uses to drive off the Druun.
No one’s seen Sisu since that day, but she left the powerful gem with the people, so that they could be protected from the Druun’s destruction.
Though the main threat is gone, Kumandra never fully recovers. The people split into five lands—Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail—each of which have their own challenges. Though the lands mistrust each other the people of Heart, guardians of the dragon gem, believe that they can unite the lands.
Guardians Benja (Daniel Dae Kim: New Amsterdam) and his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran: The Croods: A New Age) invite factions from the other lands to Heart, where they hope to foster peace. Instead of peace, the lands of Kumandra get disaster. One faction attempts to steal the dragon gem, leading to the precious stone shattering.
Breaking the gem releases the Druun, which begins to tear through the world again, taking Raya’s father and decimating the population. Each land takes a piece of the gem, hoping to save their own people by dooming the others. Raya, heartbroken at the loss of her father and furious with the other lands for unleashing the Druun, decides it’s up to her to save the world. She will find the hiding place of Sisu, unleash the dragon and stop the world from deteriorating further.
Will finding Sisu be enough to save Kumandra from the Druun? And is saving a deeply mistrustful world really worth the effort?
Does that description sound heavy for a children’s movie? Surprisingly, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada treat a serious story with a featherlight touch. Raya and the Last Dragon is a stunning fantasy epic with loads of humor and a message that feels depressingly prescient. Some of the adventures may feel formulaic, but there’s a reason for that: For every moment of human weakness or cruelty, there’s a moment of goofy levity. It’s the perfect mix to keep you invested in the characters without giving you a case of anxiety.
Unlike Soul, a film that spoke more deeply to adults, Raya and the Last Dragon is designed with all ages in mind. Little ones will squeal and giggle over Sisu’s silly antics and slapstick humor. Older kids and adults will glean messages about the fragility of trust, and how essential it is in our world.
Beyond a film that speaks to a broken world’s desperate need to work together, the film is also a gorgeous bit of fantasy animation. All the lands of Kumandra are inspired by different aspects of South Asian culture, with glorious color palettes and distinctive designs. The film is a sumptuous visual feast with surprisingly energetic combat sequences.
While Raya’s mission might be serious, her adventures are not. Like many modern “Disney Princess” movies, this film has strong female protagonists with no interest in marriage as a reward for adventure. While Raya isn’t given a husband, she’s still forced to acknowledge that she needs help in her quest, picking up an odd assortment of helpers as she traverses the land. This dream team, comprised of a con artist baby, an enterprising child restaurateur, a dragon, and a battle-hardened warrior, must first learn how to work together before they can take on the world. Sometimes this involves a chase through a market, other times it involves a simple act of kindness after someone hurts you.
Though Tran’s Raya has by far the most emotional journey in the film, Raya and the Last Dragon is really Awkwafina’s film. Turning in a one-of-a-kind vocal performance as Sisu the optimistic dragon, her riffing, goofball delivery is reminiscent of Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin. While Awkwafina is constantly throwing out punchlines, she never forgets Sisu’s heart. Her dragon is a silly fun-loving creature, but one that will gladly and selflessly take the first step to mend broken bonds.
A family film with wonderful messaging and beautiful animation, Raya and the Last Dragon is worth the early access price tag.
Programing note: Be sure you also check out Us Again, a lovely short animated film that plays before Raya theatrically and will also debut on Disney+, about an older couple who get their rhythm back one stormy night.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be available March 5 on Disney+ for $29.99
Great Animation * PG * 114 mins.