‘Raya and the Last Dragon’: Like animated Avengers, new Disney heroes save the world with color and laughs
As the bumbling dragon, Awkwafina leads a lively voice cast in the visually arresting adventure.
One can’t help but think of the “Avengers” universe when watching the colorful and delightful Disney animated adventure “Raya and the Last Dragon,” to wit:
- Remember when that purple monster Thanos snapped his fingers in “Infinity War,” and (Spoiler alert!) half the population was reduced to dust? But there was a chance everybody might be brought back to life? In “Raya,” purple-and-black cloud monsters known as the Druun turn humans and other creatures into stone — but there’s a chance everyone can be revived!
Disney presents a film directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. Rated PG (for some violence, action and thematic elements). Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Thursday at local theaters and Friday on Disney+ (for additional $29.99 fee).
- You know how the Infinity Stones are such a big deal in the MCU, and if you can collect all six you can pretty much rule the universe? In “Raya,” there’s this glowing magical stone known as the Dragon Gem, and it’s been broken into five pieces — but if you can collect them all, you can save the universe!
Whether it’s the Maltese Falcon or the Ark of the Covenant or the glowing briefcase in “Pulp Fiction” or the One Ring, heroes and villains in the movies are always in pursuit of some MacGuffin. In “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the quest to reassemble the Dragon Gem is the springboard for a breezy, laugh-filled and sweet adventure with some great girl-power messaging, a few heart-tugging moments and a treasure trove of fantastically funny voice work from a cast led by Kellie Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong and Izaac Wang. Their line readings are as lively and vibrant as the gorgeous and exquisitely rendered visuals.
Following a 21st century tradition established in such films as “Tangled,” “Frozen” and “Moana,” the 59th animated feature in the Disney Animated library gives us another strong and independent female role model in the title character, a young warrior princess. In a prologue giving us a glimpse of a broken world, Kellie Marie Tran’s Raya speaks to us: “I know what you’re thinking … a lone rider, a dystopian world, a land that’s gone to waste. How did this world get so broken?”
Flashback to some 500 years earlier, when the magical, Southeast Asian-inspired land of Kumandra prospered, with humans and friendly dragons co-existing in harmony — until the onset of a plague in the form of those purple-black Druun tornadoes, who turned every dragon into stone save for Sisu, who managed to use the a magic stone called the Dragon Gem to defeat the Druun but then disappeared.
We time-hop a half-millennium forward and meet Raya as a young princess training with her brave and kindly father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to become the Guardian of the Dragon Gem, which is hidden away deep in the caves of her homeland of Heart. (Kumandra is shaped like a dragon, with five distinct and culture-clashing tribes occupying various sections, i.e., Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail.) At a gathering of the factions, things go sideways in a hurry when Raya is betrayed by a new friend named Namaari (Gemma Chan) and a battle breaks out, resulting in the Dragon Gem being broken into five pieces and the return of the evil Druun, who cast their plague across the entire land.
Another flash-forward, this time six years, when the teenage Raya sets out to find the dragon Sisu and succeeds, who according to legend might be at the end of one of Kumandra’s many, many, many rivers, and possibly could be revived. It’s a long shot, but wooohoo, it works! The mighty Sisu is back, but as we quickly learn, this great warrior dragon savior is basically a bumbling, cuddly, hilariously goofy teenager who looks like a stuffed toy come to life and sounds just like Awkwafina (and the animated movie world is a better place for that). But does this silly creature even have any superpowers? “I’m going to be real with you,” says Sisu. “I’m not, like, the best dragon.”
We’ll see about that.
Riding her trusty steed, a giant pill bug/armadillo/pug hybrid named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) and with Sisu by her side, Raya travels from faction to faction (each land has its own distinct and beautiful look and personality) in search of the broken pieces of the Dragon Gem, along the way picking up a lovable, ragtag band of allies including the wisecracking boy ship captain Boun (Izaac Wang), the initially ferocious but ultimately big-hearted warrior Tong (Benedict Wong) and the teeny tiny baby con artist Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her monkey accomplices, I kid you not. Eventually, Raya will have to confront her old nemesis Namaari, and either they’re going to have to learn to trust one another, or all of Kumandra could turn to stone.
Trust. Taking that leap of faith and trusting someone to do the right thing, even if it places you in a vulnerable spot. That’s the overriding message in “Raya and the Last Dragon” — a message that is repeated in monologue after monologue AFTER monologue, to the point where even the youngest of viewer might be thinking: All right, we get it! But it’s a lovely and timely thought, encased in a visually arresting, consistently entertaining story featuring a host of endearing and memorable characters. Everyone in the ensemble is excellent, but the standout is Awkwafina, who does some of the best animated voice work I’ve ever heard.