The latest Walt Disney Animation project, Raya and the Last Dragon, could not be coming at a more appropriate time. After years in development, the final version slated for theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on March 5th, 2021, is an exploration of trust and social responsibility from the perspective of Southeast Asian characters at a moment in history when the globe seems more divided than ever and attacks on the Asian-American community are increasing. Viewed through this lens, Raya’s arrival is auspicious, offering hope and optimism when so much darkness exists in the hearts of man. On the other hand, there is something so simplistic, so naïve, about Raya that it seems too far-fetched to be possible. Backed by terrific vocal performances and set within a world of pure imagination, Raya and the Last Dragon is at once a tears-inducing, hope-rich narrative and a frustrating, rage-creating affair aggravating those who already believe too much in the trust of others and inciting not an ounce of self-awareness from those with none.
The community of Kumandra is broken into five specific lands: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail, each with its own unique defining characteristics, each connected by the river that runs through it. With distrust among the lands growing by the day, the last remaining Guardian of the Dragon Gem, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, The Last Jedi), searches the lands for the last lost dragon, Sisudatu (voiced by Awkwafina, Ocean’s 8), whose return might end the conflict and restore peace. As Raya searches for the pieces of the Dragon Gem held by each land leader, gathering unexpected help along the way, she is also being hunted by the princess of Fang, Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan, Captain Marvel), who wants to reform the Dragon Gem solely for the protection of her people and her people alone.
In any other year, a film with two directors, two co-directors, two screenwriters, and eight story credits would seem destined for the junk pile. That’s a lot of voices and perspectives to be channeled into a less than two-hour animated adventure that needs to be satisfying visually and narratively. But this isn’t like any other year. Though the film has been in developed for some time, with each new person adapting and tweaking the story until it became the screenplay by Qui Nguyen (The Society) (who also provided additional fight reference choreography) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), the version hitting theaters and Disney+ was primarily constructed remotely due to the pandemic. The production notes don’t explain the need for co-directors given that both lead directors, Don Hall (Moana) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), are not novices, though it’s fairly easy to speculate that it may have been to offer support with so much of the team working at a distance. For whatever the reason, Raya never appears to be a story with different people at the helm, offering a cohesive adventure that’s as emotionally thoughtful as it is entertaining. Similar to Moana (2016) and Frozen II (2019), Raya’s adventure flows from one moment to the next without force or happenstance, enabling the adventure to pull you in slowly before you’re off to the races. Also, similar to both of these films, the true extent of the narrative and the approach to the conclusion are unlike anything the trailers imply. Without spoiling any of the secrets, it’s this leaning away from convention that makes Raya and the Last Dragon, like its processors, far more memorable and emotionally evocative.
Ahead of the release, Raya was touted as this amazing amalgamation of Southeast Asian (SEA) cultures. The first images showed off a lush geography, while the first trailer indicated something mystical and wondrous. Then Mulan (2020) released, a film equally given high marks for its recognition of Chinese culture in promos, yet the final product seemed to misunderstand and, in some cases, misrepresent the culture of origin. Achieving the same level of whoopsie-daisy is harder with Raya as Kumandra is entirely fictitious, but it’s not impossible. It is clear, however, that Nguyen and Lim not only laid superior groundwork, but that Hall and Estrada listened to their writers in creating Raya. How so? The little details. Each land is distinct in regard to architecture, agriculture, textiles, as well as genealogy. The five lands are connected by water, so there is a thru line of similarity, but each one is distinct enough to feel unique from the other. Within these distinctions are flavors of the real world as shown in Raya’s Pencak Silat-fighting style from Malaysia and Indonesia versus Namaari’s Muay Thai and Krabi Krabong-inspired styles from Thailand. While the fighting styles, and accompanying weapons, speak to the martial arts of SEA and their respective philosophies, what truly grounds the film and becomes the physical manifestation of the narrative theme is the food. One specific dish, made by Raya’s father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim, Always Be My Maybe), requires a food type from each of the five lands to be created, itself inspired by Thailand’s Tom Yum soup. The soup is treated, first, as a concrete way to signify the importance of unification (an edible illustration of harmony, if you will), which then grows to include all food as Raya distrusted any food she hasn’t made herself. Food is nourishment and, without it, a body grows weak and dies. Nguyen and Lim’s script implies the same for the spirit and community if one cannot trust another person to share something as simple as a meal. Without this simple form of trust, nothing greater can be built. Ultimately, Hall and Estrada’s film comes across as entirely pure, absolutely within keeping of the spirit of the cultures from which it borrows, crafting something which exemplifies the best of SEA culture without shifting into tokenism.
Where the film falters, however, is, perhaps, a bit more personal in nature. Like Moana and Frozen II, Raya is as much about failing as it is healing, specifically, the failings of humankind to choose ourselves first over our neighbors. When everything comes down to trust, offering an ending, as mentioned, that’s more in keeping with the approach of these other two films, seems far too naïve by today’s standards. Is learning that trusting in your fellow to do the right thing in the face of adversity a good lesson for the next generation to learn? Absolutely. However, as we come to March 2021, nearly a year after the whole world began to lockdown due to COVID-19, and seeing how much of America reacted to the requirements of getting rid of the virus completely, a film like Raya feels a tad irresponsible. Where my fellow critics may have cried at the emotional moments and character beats, I found myself tearing up over the fact that this kind of optimism is far beyond me anymore. That the philosophical question of “what does humankind look like in a global crisis?” raised by many eco-disaster or zombie flicks has officially been answered. I would love nothing more than to share a meal with my family, the bulk of whom I haven’t seen without social distancing since my grandfather’s funeral March 2020 right before North Carolina’s first lockdown, except I can’t as long as I also see people on my timeline going on family vacations, arguing about masks, and generally caring more for their own inconvenience than the fact that those who have taken protocols seriously likely haven’t left their neighborhoods save for emergencies, food, or supplies. Again, the theme is sound and valuable. But a year into lockdown with little end in sight, the notion that being able to share a meal is enough to undo, in the case of Raya, 500 years of discord is gullible. Is it a good first step, as suggested by the film? Absolutely. The execution of the message is, truly, lovely and moving. However, in light of the evidence of the last year, it seems undeniably ignorant.
Absent the above, Raya and the Last Dragon is everything you’ve heard it to be. It’s as much as celebration of SEA culture as it is the kind of heartwarming and adventurous tale from Walt Disney. Part The Dark Crystal 1982), part Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and all Disney, Raya is a fun-filled escapade for the whole family. Tran and Awkwafina have fantastic chemistry together, each able to manage the necessary balance between serious and silly that makes up modern Disney films. After offering the stand-out vocal performance in The Croods: A New Age (2020), I’m hoping that Tran finds herself a litany of voicework as live-performance audiences has been less kind to her (see: audience response to The Last Jedi). The rest of the cast are strong with the main complaint I’ve heard being that the majority are not of the SEA community. That is a valid complaint as authenticity is key for any kind of storytelling. In regard to the cast as it does exist, they are fantastic, bringing to life the complexity of human emotion amid dragons in a grounded way. If you’re not impressed by the performances, then you’re no doubt going to be impressed by the animation. The first look we received August 2020 was only a hint of the beauty to come. What I dig the most is the way the animation itself shifts for a brief period depending on the perspective of the story. Even in brief, the shifts in visual style compliment the central technique, demonstrating more plainly why some stories are destined for animation and would be underserved in the telling via live-action.
Watched without the last year on your mind, Raya and the Last Dragon is truly wonderful and engaging. The world of Kumandra feels concrete and lived in, the characters possessing of agency versus narrative need, and the message is positively necessary these days. If getting to a theater isn’t ideal for you, you can purchase Raya for $30 via Disney+ Premier Access and you will be able to watch as often as you like via Disney+ until you cancel your subscription. If neither of these options seem ideal, it’s currently believed that Raya will come available for all Disney+ subscribers on June 4th, 2021. Seeing as Soul is coming available on home video in March, three months after its Disney+ debut, it may be safe to presume that Raya and the Last Dragon will see a physical home release before landing on the streaming service. To travel to Kumandra or not shouldn’t be a matter of whether but of when. For adventure and healing do await those who quest for the Dragon Gem. The journey, however, just may not go how you expect. Trust in it anyway.
In select theaters and available on Disney+ with Premier Access March 5th, 2021.
Available for all Disney+ subscribers on June 4th, 2021.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.