The Bock’s Office: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ shows Disney magic is transcendent as ever
While a wealth of entertainment options have been at our fingertips sitting on the couch for many months of trying times, the light at the end of the tunnel may just be coming from a projection booth. Even if it means not having another movie immediately lined up afterward, being back at the local bijou for a single feature is bound to feel amazing.
Enter “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
In the realm of Kumandra, legend tells of an ancient evil known as the Druun that once spread across the land nearly destroying the world in its entirety until a final stand by heroic dragons spared humanity. However, mankind promptly broke into a new kind of warfare, splitting the continent into five sections: Fang, Talon, Spine, Tail and Heart.
After 500 years of hostility, a tenuous peace among the kingdoms takes no time to break and the Druun runs amok once again throwing the world into despair.
A young warrior from the Heart kingdom known as Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years searching the devastated Kumandra for a sense of hope, one that can only be found by summoning the same dragon responsible for defeating the Druun centuries earlier.
Almost by accident, Raya finally succeeds in bringing back the mythic beast, Sisu (Awkwafina), certain that the dragon will save her people from total ruin.
But, the once-powerful creature is limited in her ability to help, forcing Raya to find a new way to restore Sisu’s abilities and bring her world back to its former glory.
After the amount of online harassment she had to endure for simply existing within the “Star Wars” universe, it’s wonderful to see Tran cast in a role that shows she’s not going anywhere and is only going to be more prominent. Compared with the tender-hearted underdog Rose Tico, Raya is a drastically different character type: a princess by birth and a fighter by choice; a flawless fighter who’s been surviving in a wasteland; and, despite her efforts to preserve her land, a skeptic about the likelihood that the five kingdoms can ever live in harmony.
But, even the most hardened soldier can’t be too stoic when they’re riding around on a rolling mount named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) that looks like an armadillo/roly poly bug hybrid. Or if hipsters on unicycles suddenly formed their own military platoon.
With the conspicuous absence of Mushu in last year’s live-action “Mulan,” we’ve all been craving a goofy Disney dragon, and the multi-faceted Awkwafina does not disappoint as Sisu, a water dragon whose elemental attachment makes her capable of going with the flow in any situation. Although she maintains she is by far the weakest of her species, her good humor and desire to befriend all types — retaining her luminescent mane, crooked smile and sunny disposition even when she temporarily takes human form, looking curiously similar to her voice actress — shows there are more important traits than magical potency.
Even once Raya finds the fabled last dragon, she still must contend with her nemesis, Namaari (Gemma Chan), almost identical to her in personality and goals as she strives to do her mother’s (Sandra Oh) bidding for the Fang kingdom similar to Raya’s quest to save her father (Daniel Dae Kim). Could they have been best pals in better times? I guess we’ll never know…
“Raya and the Last Dragon,” rated PG
3 out of 4 stars
Starring the voices of: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim
The more we see of Kumandra — a landmass divided by a river that just happens to be shaped like a dragon — the more it becomes apparent that even if Raya is the heroine of this tale, she’s not the only one who’s suffered. As befitting any Disney journey, a peculiar assortment of supporting characters join in, including a prepubescent shrimp boat captain (Izaac Wang), a long-winded and short-tempered axe-wielding barbarian (Benedict Wong), and a crafty toddler (Thalia Tran) who commands a squad of mischievous monkeys.
The troubled saga of Kumandra draws on the lengthy history of conflict among Asian cultures as well as the more modern issues that tend to tear apart any nation, namely citizens who assume the worst of all other regions and live in fear of change. Add in an unstoppable plague monster that thrives on humanity’s negativity and of course things are only to get worse as the separation expands.
Though a message of unity is applicable to any society, Disney somehow stumbles onto an especially timely message in an otherwise by-the-numbers adventure story, enhanced by the kind of lush, vivid, gorgeous backdrops and boisterous battle scenes we’ve come to expect. And, the added benefit of giving Asian actors a deserved spotlight doesn’t hurt either.
While it’s true that any movie is better on the big screen, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the kind of cartoon best experienced in the theater as opposed to home with the streaming platform Disney+. If you haven’t been to the cinema in a year or more, what better way to appreciate a return to the larger world than re-discovering the magic of the studio that has something for everybody?
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