Review by C.J. Bunce
Raya and the Last Dragon is the first animated movie created during the pandemic, with 900 creators working together to make a full-scale feature film from home. The result is the best Disney animated film to date, filled with a great story combining all sorts of fantasy tropes, great visual action, exciting characters, good humor, blending historic themes with modern ideas and characters. The entirely computer animated film also sports three strong female lead characters and is backed by an all female technical leadership team. The result is a movie blending elements of Asian culture on par with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind with the action of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the fantastical elements of The Lord of the Rings. Count Raya and the Last Dragon among the creative works that shine brightly despite the adverse conditions of 2020.
When a special gem is shattered–the “One Ring” of this story–the world is broken, humans are turned to stone, 500 years after the evil Druun were stopped by the sacrifice of the dragons, which were also turned to stone. Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is superb as the confident Raya, a warrior heroine who is seeking the Last Dragon, named Sisu, voiced by comedy actor Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Level) who in all her major film roles in the past two years has cemented her place as the next Robin Williams. Gemma Chan (Humans, Captain Marvel) voices Namaari, chief rival and frenemy, Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) is the giant warrior Tong, and Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy) voices Raya’s father, whose words inspire the pathway of the story.
Along with the great heroes, the villain is particularly well designed. Arrival of the ethereal, lightning-filled Druun is accompanied by the 21st century version of the shark theme from Jaws, that familiar–but well applied–octave drop bass plunge sound that has become a hallmark of all recent action movies. The Druun are an incredible visual marvel–think Tolkien’s Nazgul meet the Death Eaters of Harry Potter.
The film is a celebration of Southeast Asian culture. Pencat Silat and other Southeast Asian martial arts styles of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Thai kickboxing inspire the movements of Raya and Namaari, weapons from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand are integrated into the plot. Although martial arts factor heavily into the story, the bulk of the journey is steeped in classic fantasy tropes. Fantasy fans will be able to pick out scenes inspired by or straight out of fantasy classics. The creators don’t hide their influences. The market scenes of the worlds of Valerian, Jumanji, Huntsman, and The Hobbit can be found here, foot chase scenes of the reboot of Tomb Raider, mystical elements and other Easter eggs from The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, The NeverEnding Story, The Last Unicorn, The Princess Bride, Terminator 2, and prior Disney shows Black Panther, Mulan, and Brave. Some of the best action sequences follow the style of the pod race in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace--in a good way. Despite being derivative, the film puts it all together into something new and vibrant. In fact if your kids see this movie before seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, they’re probably going to favor this movie’s adventure-filled scenes.
The writers created a layered, believable world. Nice touches include terms of endearment based on water–highly valued in the realm of the story–terms like “dew drop” and “morning mist,” and the country names are based on the parts of the dragon, like Spine, Talon, Tail, Heart, and Fang. The dialogue nicely balances classic lore with the modern tongue–21st century slang actually works for these characters. And a high point is Tuk Tuk, named for the Thai taxi cab/rickshaws, he’s part pill bug, part armadillo, part pug dog, worthy of the cute Disney characters of moviedom’s past–including Baby Yoda. And he doesn’t get any less cute as he gets older in the film. He is voiced by Firefly and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Alan Tudyk. “Con Baby” and the Ongis are probably worthy of their own spinoff movie.
Originally scheduled for a holiday 2020 premiere but delayed due to the pandemic, Raya and the Last Dragon is now streaming as part of Vudu’s Early Access platform for new in-theater films. Fans of animation, fantasy, adventure, and Disney films will not want to miss it.