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Josh Reviews Raya and the Last Dragon

Menaced by the Druun (seemingly unstoppable evil entities that turn people to stone), the once-prosperous, peaceful nation of Kumandra has fractured into five bitterly divided, isolated tribes: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.  What little hope still existed could be found in the orb containing the spirit of the last of a once mighty, magical race of dragons.  But when young Raya, the daughter of the chief of the Heart tribe, trusts the wrong person, catastrophe strikes and the orb is shattered.  Years later, Raya is desperately seeking to reassemble the pieces of the shattered orb, to find a way to restore harmony to her broken world.

I very much enjoyed Raya and the Last Dragon!  It’s a pleasure to see Disney Animation continuing to operate at the height of their powers.  (They’ve been on an excellent run of movies this past decade!)  The film is an exciting adventure story, with a pleasing balance of fun action and rich characters, set in a delightfully well fleshed-out original world.  The animation is gorgeous, and the voice-cast is top-notch.  It’s hard to ask for more!

It’s a pleasure to see a Disney film that so richly embraces Southeast Asian culture.  The world of Raya and the Last Dragon is an invented fantasy, but weaving through it on many levels are influences from our real-world Southeast Asia.  The film is led by Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, Disney’s first princess (and the story makes sure to clarify that Raya is a princess) of Southeast Asian descent.  Raya was written by Vietnamese-American screenwriter Qui Nguyen and Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim.

Kelly Marie Tran (so great as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and so unfairly cast to the side in The Rise of Skywalker) is tremendous in the lead role as Raya.  There’s so much energy and charisma in her vocal performance.  We see Raya’s toughness and her intelligence… and also her deep wells of caring and humanity, even though she has built walls around herself.  Raya is a wonderfully fun, interesting, complex Disney heroine.  For years now Disney has been doing a great job at giving toughness, intelligence, and agency to its female heroines (in Moana, in Frozen, in Wreck-It Ralph, etc.), and Raya is a terrific addition to that lineage.

Then there is Awkwafina, who blew me away as the voice of the Dragon Sisu.  For the first few minutes, this energetic, sassy, wise-talking dragon felt like Mushu (From Mulan) redux, but very quickly Awkwafina made Sisu entirely her own.  She’s very funny in the role, but what really impressed me was the tender soul she was able to give to this silly character.  The buddy-comedy interactions between Raya and Sisu were some of my favorite parts of the film.

Those two were the stars and the clear stand-outs, but the film was filled with many other wonderful characters, brought to life by a phenomenal voice cast.  Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) brought great nobility and heart to his work as Raya’s father, Chief Benja.  Benedict Wong (The Martian, Wong in Doctor Strange and elsewhere in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) was terrific fun as the huge warrior Tong.  Gemma Chan (Captain Marvel, Crazy Rich Asians) was a compelling adversary as Raya’s nemesis Namaari, and Sandra Oh (Gray’s Anatomy, Killing Eve) was perfection as Namaari’s mother Virana.  Alan Tudyk (Firefly) was a hoot vocalizing Raya’s rolling armadillo-like companion Tuk Tuk.

I loved the world-building in the film.  The design and history of this world was clearly very well thought out by the Disney team of storytellers and animators.  The movies gives us lots and lots of information, but never gets bogged down in boring scenes of exposition.  But as Raya (and we, the audience) move through the tribes of what was once Kumandra, there’s a so much depth to be found that it ensures the story, and the world, has great verisimilitude.

At this point, I almost take it as a given that Disney films will be beautifully animated.  But I think it’s important to take a moment to stop and recognize the tremendous artistic achievement of this film.  I was blown away, scene after scene, by the richness and smoothness of the animation, by the perfection of the character design, and by the depth and beauty of the environments.  This is eye-candy for sure.

The film’s messages of finding unity and trust in a broken world might seem hokey, but I thought they were very well-handled by the film.  This is a story that is extremely relevant to our world today, and the messages are delivered in a moving, emotional way without ever getting schmaltzy or preachy.

Bravo to directors Don Hall (who directed Big Hero 6 and was a co-director of Moana) and Carlos López Estrada (director of Blindspotting) and their team for creating this wonderful film!

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