Review: 'Raya And The Last Dragon' (2021) Dirs. Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada
Walt Disney Animation Studios start 2021 with a positive, vibrant explosion of Asian culture celebrated in lots of fun, colour, humour and heart for their 59th animated production...
Across the magical kingdom of Kumandra, a once peaceful nation is divided into five tribes; Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. All these tribes are based along a mighty river that resembles a dragon and are unified by a powerful, magical Dragon Gem.
Powerful dragons once lived across Kumabdra and used their magical powers in the gem to ward of an evil plague called Druun that turned all it touched to stone. But Druun returns when the greedy tribes destroy the gem attempting to steal it for their own.
Now, it falls to young warrior Raya (Tran), daughter of Chief Benja (Kim), to seek out the last of those dragons, Sisu (Awkwafina) and rebuild the gem. Only if Raya can find Sisu and traverse the dangerous kingdom can they repel the Druun and unite Kumandra once more...
After an immersive 20 minute introduction to the fictional land of Kumandra, the lore that surrounds it and Raya herself, we segway into a land very much divided and suffering at the hands of the evil plague Druun (born from human discord) six years later. Druun is an unnatural evil that is wonderfully animated that ravishes most of the good in the land, and only kept at bay by fragments of the magical Dragon Gem; a gem now smashed into five pieces where only once united can it truly repel the Druun for good.
With each passing year, technology behind animated films gets better and better. 'Raya And The Last Dragon' continues to showcase the beauty of Walt Disney Animation, not once sacrificing it's semi-cartoonish designs but not without maintaining a semi-realistic look to characters. Our titular young heroine, Raya, voice with zest and enthusiasm by Kelly Marie Tran, is a typical wide-eyed warrior and the next in Disney's line-up of female leads in their animations following Tangled, Frozen and Moana. She's sadly nothing special in terms of what Disney can offer, but she still holds her own with knowledge, humanity and skillset.
When Awkwafina pops up as the also titular "Last Dragon", Sisu, equally gloriously animated and looking like an animated female splice of Elsa and Sully, this veers into true Disney animation territory. Awkwafina shines as Sisu. Fast talking, kid-friendly slapstick, covert pop-culture fused dialogue and a magical plot all laid down by her in minutes which leaves just one solid hour of check-boxes for Disney to tick; gorgeous lands, nefarious villains, cute creatures (Tuk Tuk is a joy), exciting chases and lots of heart and morality.
We are treated to an Asian/American supporting voice-cast, including Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim and Benedict Wong, all who provide an authenticity to their characters.
Vietnamese/American Qui Nguyen and Malaysian Adele Lim (of Crazy Rich Asians) lend their screenwriting credentials to really create a story that delves into Southern Asian culture, wrapped up in the fictional bow of a magical Disney story. However, there's no denying the wealth of influence from said culture that makes this animation wonderfully different to what we've seen before, the closest being 1998s Mulan.
Accompany this magical lore and rich influence of culture with the gorgeous animation by Walt Disney Animation Studios, and you can't be impressed visually. While the story itself is nothing special as an unwavering template used many times before in terms of comedy and plot, the animation and design is wonderful. With each "land" of Kumandra divided by their respective tribes, each has a unique look and style that is able to be explored for both visual effect and the action sequences, and Spine really stands out as something different.
Composer James Newton Howard also embraces the culture with an exciting and fused score of both modern and traditional themes to accompany all the various emotions captured on screen.
Being based around Asian culture, this lends itself to the action sequences and combat between our heroes and villains. Shot and edited in a way that respects the action, fantasy and grandeur cinema of Asia, it makes for fast, furious and exciting moments peppered between the journey across the magical lands. This also combines for some dazzling animation and action during the final act.
While nothing special on the outset as a typical Disney offering, the animation and immersion in Asian culture is refreshing to see and nice done so beautifully.
'Raya And The Last Dragon' is a co-production between Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios