Raya and the Last Dragon movie review: Disney's Warrior Princess and the Fellowship of the MacGuffin
Disney adds a winsome Southeast Asian warrior princess to its roster with Raya and the Last Dragon
castKelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk
directorDon Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Water is a defining motif in Raya and the Last Dragon. It precipitates the sea change of the warrior princess at the centre of Disney's new animated film. Water, not fire, empowers its dragon, who breathes a mist of vapours, and possesses a talent for swimming (“I got water skills that kill. I slaughter when I hit the water.”) Water connects the five lands of Kumandra. It shields the living from the deadly plague that has turned most of its world into a wasteland. It's a natural force that helps heal wounds of the past, before paving the way for change and renewal.
A Disney film carries considerable nostalgic baggage. That's why the studio has been mining its existing IP, instead of telling new stories. 2016 was perhaps the last great year for the Mouse House's animation outfit, having given us two gems in Zootopia and Moana. Five years later, Disney makes its first foray into creating new IP with Raya and the Last Dragon. While Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada's film is by no measure a dud, it does lack that intangible "it" factor that elevated past films to classic status.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) serves us Kumandra history 101 in the expository prologue. Humans and dragons once lived together in harmony. It didn't last because a bunch of blobs called the Druun, who turn living beings into stone, saw to it. So, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity, leaving behind a magical gem that can ward off the Druun. 500 years later, "people being people," as Raya aptly puts it, tried to take sole possession of the gem. In the ensuing one-upmanship, the gem broke into five pieces, allowing the return of the Druun. So, Raya embarks on an impossible quest to find the last surviving dragon to stop the extinction-level threat and reunite Kumandra again.
The quest begins with booby-trapped caves, progresses through stealth missions in well-guarded fortresses, and ends in climactic combat sequences. Raya navigates them like a regular Lara Croft. The similarities also extend to her noble birth, and tender relationship with her father. Only, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), has trained his daughter to protect Kumadra's legacy since her pre-teens. Being a Disney movie, Benja being turned to stone is the inciting event for Raya, with her mother having already been mysteriously disposed of before the story began.
This trauma plays into Raya's trust issues. To cope with the loss of her father and the treachery of a close friend, Raya detaches herself from the rest of the world. It's a lesson in how trauma can affect our total being, drastically altering the way we see the world. How our sense of safety and desire for connection with others is jolted in such a way trust requires to be learnt all over again. This is where the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) comes in. She helps Raya remember the lessons her own father taught about learning to trust and taking the first step in faith. Trust is not only repeated to the point of semantic satiation, but built into clunky visual metaphors of a bridge, and the water under it.
Reflective of our own distrustful society, Raya and her once-friend, now-adversary Namaari (Gemma Chan) are two sides of the same coin. They were once friends because they were self-confessed "dragon nerds." Both come from single-parent families, and believe they're honouring their parents' wishes. Although they both want the same thing (to create a safe and better world for their people), each, blinded by hatred, assumes the other to be the villain of the story.
When the dragon gem splits following Namaari and her mother Virana’s (Sandra Oh) hostile takeover, it conveniently splits into five pieces, as if to ensure each of the five warring factions in Kumandra has one. To gather the broken pieces from the five lands and unite them all, Raya reluctantly assembles a fellowship of the MacGuffin. Sisu is a water dragon who can take on human form. She brings a mix of self-deprecating comedy, occasional wisdom and a get-out-of-jail-free card. Then, there's Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), an armadillo of sorts who's essentially Raya's ride, as the name suggests. Completing the merchandise collection are a shrimp boat chef (Izaac Wang), a gentle giant (Benedict Wong), a "con baby" (Thalia Tran) and three little monkeys.
Moving away from dry terrain back to what is Raya and the Last Dragon's most significant contextual symbol, water also informs the movie’s stylistic choices. In the first act, Raya's trust issues are at its peak as she navigates the barren landscapes, their desolation reinforced with the saturated colours and high contrast. The colour scheme softens as the action shifts to the mainlands surrounded by water. It's on the many boat adventures from one land to another where Raya finally learns to trust her fellow man again.
Water is also where Disney shows off the most realistic animation money can buy. From the raindrops, ripples and reflections down to the way the mass of a character affects its own, the animators capture it all with precision. Though the water isn't sentient like it was in Moana, it still boasts such hyperreal detail it looks and feels like actual water and somehow magical at the same time. The fight sequences too boast a certain grace and fluidity. Gorgeously choreographed, they make up for some of the conventional storytelling choices. Only, they are few and far between. The narrative itself doesn't possess the same fluidity. One too many characters appear, tones change abruptly, subplots crash into each other, like waves in a storm.
The five lands of Kumandra — Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Heart — are coloured with the arts, myths and cultures of various Southeast Asian countries. But it's a love letter to the region more interested in summarising them through a Hollywood lens, rather than depicting an authentic version of any one country. What makes its usual Disney cocktail of moral messaging and magic refreshing is the studio finally embracing representation beyond Western fairy tales and Chinese folklore. What is even more refreshing is an original animated film which isn't another sequel or a live-action update to a past classic.
Raya and the Last Dragon releases in Indian cinemas on 5 March.
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