Female protagonists in Disney animated films have come a long way. It's been 84 years since Snow White awaited a Prince's kiss to awaken her from a cursed slumber. The tales themselves are a far cry from their "snow white" roots, with modern adventures focused on diversity, people of color and those that have far too long been under-(or mis-)-represented throughout the history of cinema.
The impressive "Raya and the Last Dragon" is Disney Animated Studios' 59th feature film to be released theatrically, and one thing has remained the same since the beginning: Disney has pushed the envelope with its animation techniques and style, and "Raya and the Last Dragon" is the most beautifully, brilliantly rendered animated film dare I say in the studios' history.
And while the story-lines - many borrowed or adapted from existing fairy tales or legends - have admittedly played it safe with the Disney formula over the past century, this latest animated entry feels fresh and inspired, possessing that Disney charm that makes it feel like its destined to be a classic, with ever-relevant themes that speak to the issues of today just as potently.
Featuring a predominantly Asian-American voice cast, this original tale takes place in the fictional land of Kumandra, where dragons and humans once lived together in peace and harmony. Mystical, mysterious creatures known simply as "The Druun" float around like small electrical storms, turning to stone any living creatures that come into contact with them. The ancient dragons sacrifice themselves for the good of humanity, banishing The Druun from the realm in exchange for the extinction of their race.
Ah, but as we know, humans just can't have nice things, and never quite appreciate what they have until it's gone. Over the centuries the human population of Kumandra divide into different factions, each representing and named after a part of a dragon (there is Talon, Spine, Tail, Heart, Fang, etc., each land with their own cultures, style and inherent biases). Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) hail from the Heart Land, and are sworn protectors of a powerful artifact known as the Dragon Gem. After some treachery involving a young warrior by the name of Namaari (Gemma Chan) from the Fang Land, who was once friends with Raya, Raya and her giant pill bug friend Tuk Tuk set out to find the only creature that might be able to restore peace and prosperity...the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina).
Along the way, Raya teams up with several interesting characters, like the warrior-giant Tong (Benedict Wong), Boun (Izaac Wang) a 10-year-old entrepreneur, and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), who gets most of the films laughs, being that she is a bad-ass toddler con-artist, assisted three of her spider-monkey friends. Namaari is the film's antagonist, except to say that the film doesn't really have an antagonist...a concept that "Frozen" flirted with but then abandoned it it's final act. The lack of a real villain underscored one of the main themes of "Raya," which is that settling in to our little "factions" only breeds mistrust and misunderstanding, and that we cannot possibly reach our fullest potential without all of the "parts" working together harmoniously.
"Raya and the Last Dragon" does not include any musical numbers, and there are no talking animals. At times, there is a lot going on and the middle-third of the film is a bit convoluted and clunky. Adults may cringe at some of the modern "teenage-speak" that Raya and her gang uses, and the dragons in the film feel less like dragons and more like magical, pastel ferrets. Awkwafina does a fine job as the crazy Sisu, but too often falls closer to Jar Jar Binks than Robin Williams' Genie from "Aladdin" (and that's not a good thing). Like Jar Jar, kids will totally dig Sisu though.
The idea of putting trust - in others, in ourselves, in the staples of our society - is a powerful and timely message for today's audience, big and small. The more the characters talk and spend time with one another, the better off everyone is. While there may always be forces (The Druun) working against us that seem unstoppable at times, we must set aside our differences for the greater good...never forgetting what came before but using it only as a tool for our constant evolution into a greater, higher form of existence.
Of course, if you don't look that deeply into it, there are lots of funny jokes and fast-paced action sequences as well!
"Raya and the Last Dragon" does a great job of balancing the classic Disney formula while pushing it forward...and with this storytelling, we're also realizing that when we have enough of our own in-house problems to tend to, stories where we are threatened by exterior super-villains pale in comparison to the troubles found on our own front door.
Side Note: "Us Again" is the Disney animated short film that plays in front of "Raya and the Last Dragon, and it alone is worth the price of admission (assuming you went to a theater to see the film). It's lovely and heart-warming, and is one of my all-time favorite shorts that the studio has put out in recent years.
Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure.
Run Time: 1 hour 54 minutes.
Starring (voices of): Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk.
Directed by Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa.
"Raya and the Last Dragon" is in theaters and on Disney+ on Friday, March 5th, 2021.
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