By Christian DiMartino
Yes, it’s about a month late and it seems like I’m one of the last people to see Disney’s latest, Raya and the Last Dragon. Truth is, I wasn’t forking over $30 to rent it on Disney+, and I’m still a firm believer in the theatrical experience, so it was just a matter of making time. Not trying to tell anyone what to do, but if I were you, I would try to make time for Raya and the Last Dragon too, because it’s just the kind of movie we could use these days. When Disney isn’t cranking out soulless remakes, they do make time for something as good as Raya and the Last Dragon, and these films remind us of how Disney got to where they are in the first place.
Having said that, Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a masterpiece, but only really for little reasons. Yet it does have shades of their best work. The film is fast, funny, gorgeously animated, and while somewhat familiar in certain aspects (mostly from a Disney standpoint), the familiarity doesn’t really matter, because the film works like a charm. I made the trip to see it in IMAX last night, and it’s advised that you do the same. It’s a beaut.
So I’ll do my best to try and describe the lore at play in this film, and hopefully I won’t lose you. As Raya (voiced really well by Kelly Marie Tran) narrates, long ago in an ancient land (the name escapes me, but it looks Asian) people shared the land with dragons. These dragons each had a specific kind of magic. Yet the dragons faced quite the difficulty because certain magic at play could’ve turned everyone into stone. So it was left to one dragon, Sisu (voiced wonderfully by Awkwafina) to save the land. Save the land she did, but all of her fellow dragons turned to stone anyways.
Cut to 500 years later, and nobody knows what became of Sisu, but she’s rumored to still be alive. The land is divided into colonies, named after body parts of a dragon, such as Fang, Spine, and so on. The colony that our heroine Raya resides in happens to be home to the last source of dragon magic left in the land. Whenever all of the colonies come to visit, Raya spills the beans of this, and is betrayed by someone from another colony. Said magic ball (oh yeah, it looks like a blue crystal ball) is destroyed, and each of the colonies takes a piece of it. This results in the land practically being destroyed, and a good chunk of civilization not only turning on each other, but also turning to stone. So Raya sets out to, hopefully, find Sisu and restore the land.
Whew, that felt like a lot, and that wasn’t even all of it. The familiarity in Raya and the Last Dragon arrives in the form of the characters. There are also a few plot devices that seem familiar. Yet, what’s surprising is that these characters have a lot of charm and personality. Raya’s character is done in a way that promotes feminism without forcing it down our throats. The side characters, who I won’t dive into mostly because they factor into the film’s main journey, are enjoyable. Yet the one who runs away with the movie is Awkwafina’s Sisu. The beauty of this performance lies in the fact that not only is Awkwafina wonderful in general (she’s given some genuinely funny lines too), but the animators animate Sisu to match Awkwafina’s persona.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a beauty to behold, sometimes so beautiful it’s hard to believe we’re looking at animation. The film is also really entertaining, and it should work wonders with children (if I were a child, which mentally I can be, it would’ve floored me). At the heart of Raya and the Last Dragon is a message of trust, and while the message does only really come into play at the last second, that doesn’t mean it isn’t earned; it’s well developed because it’s introduced early on, and in front of our eyes the whole time, we just didn’t see it. This is a really good film, and a beauty to behold.