Raya and the Last Dragon
- Emma Simmonds
- 1 March 2021
Disney's latest is a spectacular animated adventure featuring fabulous voice work from Awkwafina
Boasting real wow factor, Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest in Disney's long line of animated adventures and it's certainly one of the most spectacular. Drawing on the culture and landscapes of South East Asia and written by two Asian American screenwriters, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), the film's love for that which has inspired it positively shines off the screen.
From directors Don Hall (Moana, Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (who helmed the audacious and energetic 2018 crime drama Blindspotting), working with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, Raya and the Last Dragon introduces the fractured fantasy realm of Kumandra, with its five warring kingdoms. It's the story of warrior Raya, who is voiced with great pluckiness and passion, and sound comic timing, by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker). After a disastrous incident at the film's outset, which sees amorphous beast the Druun unleashed across the realm, Raya seeks out the world's last remaining dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), to help her put things right. However, hot on their trail is Raya's fearsome rival Namaari (Gemma Chan).
There are shades of Mulan and Moana in the character of Raya, but she's been toughened up by tragedy and begins the film from a much sadder and more cynical place. There's a touch, too, of Lord of the Rings, in Raya and Sisu's epic adventure – though this film is, thankfully, much shorter. As they travel through the lands seeking pieces of the broken dragon gem, which has the power to banish the Druun, the pair assemble a ragtag band of appealing oddballs: Izaac Wang's Boun, the 10-year-old owner of a floating restaurant; looming brute Tong (brilliantly voiced by Benedict Wong); and baby con artist Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her trio of monkey pals. Although there's great humour in the group scenes, with each character grieving for family members, the shared sense of loss and way it brings them together is powerful.
If Tran makes for a great Disney heroine, Awkwafina is probably the funniest Disney sidekick since Robin Williams's Genie. Casting the comedian/rapper/actress as Sisu was a truly inspired move, her vocal gymnastics and the way her character has been designed to not only resemble her (when Sisu takes on human form), but to ape the expressiveness of her turn is delightful.
The film's message about learning to trust again is probably a tad belaboured but the marvellously magical Sisu has a hopefulness and faith in humanity that's hard to resist. Moreover, the theme of uniting divided people is extremely moving and the soaringly imaginative environs conjure an irrepressible sense of wonder. There's plenty of real-world resonance in the way the Druun sweep through Kumandra like a plague, yet Raya and the Last Dragon is actually the perfect way to escape a lockdown mindset, as it takes us from the darkest of places out into the light.
Available to watch on Disney+ with Premier Access from Fri 5 Mar.