It’s a strange time for Asians in media. While there are wonderful examples of success stories a-la Crazy Rich Asians, the To All the Boys trilogy, and last year’s historic Parasite Oscar win – we also live in a time where the American film Minari is deemed as “foreign” by the Golden Globes. With Asian American hate crimes on the rise during a global pandemic, out comes a Southeast Asian centered story about unity, and an animated one no less. Disney’s latest adventure, Raya and the Last Dragon aims to celebrate these cultures in a whirlwind fantasy epic.
Kelly Marie Tran dominates as headstrong Raya alongside a mostly Asian American voice cast. Raya and the Last Dragon starts with a rather lengthy prologue about legendary dragons and their extinction due to a nondescript evil purple entity (think Venom’s symbiote) known as the Druun. The end of these gracious beasts means the end of harmony in the fictional dragon-shaped land of Kumandra. Enter young Raya and her beautiful relationship with her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). His aim is to reunite Kumandra by inviting over the divided lands to break bread. The reunion with the other factions: Fang, Tail, Talon, and Spine isn’t quite what the Chief expects though.
Raya makes an unexpected friend, Namaari (the incomparable Gemma Chan) from Fang. They bond over food and their fangirl like love for Sisu the ancient dragon. That is until Namaari betrays Raya to steal the remaining magical dragon gem that belongs to her land of Heart. What plays out in a sad occurrence of events, the people from the other lands make an attempt to steal the gem as well. It breaks resulting in the return of the Druun. The dark entity is back to envelop anyone in its pathway and turn them into stone. One person from each land ends up taking a piece of the dragon gem for themselves, including Raya, but it’s tragically not enough to save her father from turning to stone. With Raya betrayed and alone, she now takes it upon herself to search for the last dragon as she grows older.
The film soon takes a tonal shift with the introduction of the legendary dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). It’s clear that she is there to bring in the familiar Disney vibe. However, the comedic dialogue from Awkwafina is off from the start and feels like it belongs in a different film entirely. Her strongest moments are her physical comedy and when she imparts wisdom to others. Raya and Sisu embark on a quest to restore balance by collecting all the dragon gems once again. Seeing a female friendship at the heart of the tale is refreshing, even for a post-Frozen Disney.
Along the way they meet a slew of orphan misfits. The standout performance being that of newcomer Izaac Wang as boat owner Boun. He’s so charismatic and funny, it’s easy to see how he befriends our heroines. The other misfits are the hilarious Tong (Benedict Wong) and surprising baby Little Noi (Thalia Tran) with her band of monkeys. More than capable babies are another familiar plot device. In this instance, it’s almost too different from the other cast members and detracts from the film’s brilliance. Although the star-studded cast naturally do an amazing job, it’s disheartening to see that there were not more Southeast Asian actors cast. The film boasts representation, yet it misses the mark at its core. Somehow it all feels off, maybe it’s the lack of musical numbers or the jam-packed storytelling? It’s hard to pinpoint where the narrative gets lost.
The animation is absolutely stunning, this could be Disney’s new best technically. The scenery is visually breathtaking and the character design is fantastic. The locations have so many recognizable Southeast Asian influences from Thailand to Vietnam and more. The martial arts sequences are the most memorable. Every beat of James Newton Howard’s score flows at the heart of the story. Writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and playwright Qui Nguyen had no easy task of envisioning this tale of unity. The amazing feat is that not only does this film maintain enough coherency, but that it was entirely finished from home during the ongoing pandemic.
Despite tonal inconsistencies and somewhat missing the mark on Southeast representation within its cast, Raya and the Last Dragon endures with its pure heart and message of trusting one another. There is no denying what this film will do for Asian audiences and its message to families. There are bounties to enjoy from this colorful new world and the female heroes at its center. Coming off the heels of Star Wars, Kelly Marie Tran defies all expectations and sets a high bar for a new generation of Disney princesses to follow.