There’s a McGuffin, a myriad of strange editing choices, and a very Disney cadre of cutesy sidekicks, and yet Raya and the Last Dragon eventually transcends most of its shortcomings because, in the end, its messaging is simply too powerful and so eerily timely in 2021. Propelled by delightful vocal performances from Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, and Benedict Wong, and soaring music from composer James Newton Howard (nearly rivaling the majesty of last year’s Soul), Raya isn’t at all a romantic Disney princess yarn, even if it happens to revolve around the daughter of a prodigious tribe leader. Set in a long-ago South Asian kingdom called Kumandra, a once-prosperous land ravaged by plagues, the kingdom has been broken apart by a gem forged by dragons. A power struggle for the gem divides the stone into five pieces, and the kingdom into various tribes: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. If they are to defeat the plague called Druun and restore Kumandra, they must reunite the stones and learn to trust one another again. The fate of the world depends on their cooperation, their ability to look out for each other over oneself. For Raya herself, she’s on a hunt to find the last dragon alive Sisu, for she holds the key to defeating the Druun. How Disney and writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim created a tale so immediately prescient is beyond me, particularly given that initial development took place in 2019, well before COVID wrecked the nation. Regardless of how or when, Raya is the rare but increasingly prolific case of an animated film speaking directly to the here and now, asking us to reckon with our devastating mistakes as a nation and, more broadly, as a planet of warring tribes. Between this and Frozen II, Disney is becoming quite adept at blending thematic heft and kid-friendly chaotic action. Raya utilizes Raya to offer a kick-ass heroine who engages in thrilling martial arts fisticuffs and occasionally reminds us of Rey Skywalker as she treks across the desert on her roly-poly vehicle and animal sidekick. Indeed, they’ve still managed to shoe-horn in as many cuddly side characters as possible, from the aforementioned roly-poly armadillo Tuk Tuk, or Boun, a ten year-old “Shrimporium” entrepreneur, to even Little Noi, a baby con artist from the streets of Talon. They’re all appropriately adorable, though tonal shifts from cuddly Disney to modern complexity are sometimes jarring, the film working better when dispensing with such traditional pleasantries. The two join in unison when Sisu, power restored, takes to the skies as Howard’s greatest melody inspires. His is the greatest score of the year by far and, coupled with three-dimensional sound and gorgeous, colorful animation, makes Raya and the Last Dragon worth forking over thirty bucks.
Currently in theaters and available for Premium Access rental on Disney Plus