What do you get when you cross “Mulan” with “Tomb Raider”?
Raya and The Last Dragon is a conventional Disney movie but it has enough deviations that make it a good addition to a new brand of Disney princesses.
The movie opens with Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a young woman speeding through a dry landscape. She passes by stone ruin and statues, their hands cupped in supplication. Raya is riding on a Pokemon-like creature that’s a cross between a hedgehog and pill bug. It’s an animal that can turn into a giant wheel for transport.
We learn that this land was once a fertile nation called Kumandra. It’s a place blessed by dragons until a malevolent entity named Druun forced these magical beings to sacrifice their lives.
The humans, left to fend for themselves, split into 5 clans, each named from the parts of a dragon – Fang, Talon, Heart, Spine, and Tail. Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) attempted to establish diplomacy but was betrayed, leaving the divided nation under the constant threat of Druun.
Raya navigates this dystopian backdrop as a warrior princess on a high-stakes quest. She’s made from the same plucky Disney princess mold, but there’s a layer of pathos to her character that makes her a distinct warrior princess.
Kelly Marie Tran and the rest of the cast deliver good performances. You can’t expect much from the other Disneyfied characters, but their motivations are clear enough.
There are no power ballads, dancing ensemble numbers, and a romantic subplot. But the movie is a hopeful and family-oriented fable that is markedly Asian.
The lavishly animated worldbuilding – visuals, character designs, action, and tone – is exceptional. There are thoughtfully applied influences from the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, and Cambodia.
A young Raya in training fights with Arnis then wields her father’s Kris as a grown-up. Buon (Izaac Whang) operates a boat restaurant that serves Congee with an extra spicy sauce. Chieftess Virana (Sandra Oh) teaches a group of children their history through shadow play.
Disney steps away from sunshine and rainbows to portray a post-apocalyptic world of loss and remorse. This is balanced with an action-adventure plot of quirky characters, cute critters, and the boundless optimism of Sisu (Awkwafina).
Her persistent attempts to change Raya’s cynical point of view teach lessons about unity and trust. Lighting and cinematography has two distinct visual styles to emphasize these themes throughout the movie. Despite a conventional ending on taking a leap of faith and believing in one another, it has a strong payoff that also teaches children about forgiveness.
Raya and The Last Dragon is an eye-popping, wonderful, and thoughtfully designed fable that delivers a feminist message and timely lessons without hitting you on the head with it. We don’t have a magic dragon to get rid of COVID-19, but we do need to help one another and stop blaming Asians.
Disney’s corporate priorities will forever imbue its creations with a manufactured feel, but this movie successfully blends new offerings with familiar ingredients. It’s proof that the plucky strong independent princess trope can evolve when Disney is willing to loosen its reigns.
Raya and The Last Dragon
Raya and The Last Dragon tweaks the Disney formula to deliver a wonderful feminist princess story in a thoughtfully designed world with timely lessons.