Raya and the Last Dragon
2021, PG, 114 min. Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada. Voices by Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 5, 2021
The story of diversity and representation in cinema is about evolution. Take Disney and depictions of Asian life and culture. When the studio released Mulan in 1998, it was in part a reaction to the gross stereotyping in "The Siamese Cat Song" in The Aristocats. Two decades later, and Mulan has its own issues, but Raya and the Last Dragon, the 59th animated feature from the House of Mouse enters the discussion.
Where it starts is by throwing out the idea of Asian as it stands in American cinema, which is too often a clumsy mish-mash of Chinese and Japanese influences. The sumptuous mythical world of Kumandra draws in real-world Asian influences: Yet they are not monolithically East Asian, instead evoking Southeast Asia, most especially Malaysia, Myanmar, and Brunei. This is where Raya (Tran) is on a search for a legend, and the shattered remnants of a magical stone that contains the magic of the last dragon, Sisu. What she actually finds is Sisu herself (Awkwafina), slightly scatterbrained and big of heart. Now if she can only reunite the fragments with Sisu, maybe she can overcome both the world-threatening Druun (a shapeless cloud of malice that turns people to stone) and Namaari (Chan), the warrior from a rival tribe that she blames for the world's woes.
Raya is gorgeous and exciting, with both Raya and Namaari overcoming their innate biases to save the world. Yet there's a strange lack of focus to Raya, built at the script level (potentially traceable back to the convoluted production process, which seems as torturous as the now-infamous development of The Emperor's New Groove). This is a near-two-hour film that still relies on a montage and a lengthy flashback in the first 20 minutes. Even the menace of the Druun seems oddly ill-defined, a mix of the purple destructive storm of the power stone from Guardians of the Galaxy and Parallax, the malevolent cloud from Green Lantern. For a film that is so fresh, thrilling and overdue in its very existence, just by having three Asian-American women leads, the narrative seems hidebound: for a story that break so far from the traditions of the Disney fairytale, it's still deeply predictable.
The execution is far better than the inception. The five nations of Kumandra are all distinct but of a whole, distinctive but perfectly fused (as shown in a wonderful soup metaphor). The comedy is a mix of excellent slapstick and sparkling one-liners, much of it deriving from the found family that Raya assembles on her adventure. Benedict Wong's charming and pleasant rogue Tong speaks blunt truths that raise a good giggle, while Izaak Wang gives orphaned shrimp chef Boun a charming "little brother" energy. Meanwhile Thalia Tran may voice tiny toddler Little Noi, but she's really where the animators get to cut loose, in frenetic sequences in which she commits heists with her trio of gibbon-like ongi. What's a little surprising is how little Awkwafina is given in the comedy realm: Rather than try for a big, memorable part like Robin Williams in Aladdin, or Eddie Murphy in Mulan, she's allowed a lot more space for understatement. It's necessary to keep her earnest, since she embodies the film's core message that trust is the most important gift in the world. If she was playing everything for laughs, that admirable (if naive) message would get lost. Like Sisu, Raya and the Last Dragon's heart is absolutely in the right place, even if that's one of the few perfect parts. It could have been great. Instead, it's fine.