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‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ slices and thrills with vivid grace

‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ slices and thrills with vivid grace

‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ slices and thrills with vivid grace
March 18
13:00 2021

“My whole life, I trained to become a guardian of the Dragon Gem. But this world has changed, and its people are divided. Now to restore peace, I must find the Last Dragon. My name is Raya.”

In the land of Kumandra, people have been struggling since the mythical dragons died out. Years after a devastating civil war resulted in the unleashing of the ancient Druun, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) discovers that Sisiu (Awkwafina), the last of the dragons, has survived. Looking to reunify the land, she gathers her allies for an odyssey to gather pieces of a mystical artifact, chased after by her old rival Namarri (Gemma Chan).

As the newest 3D-animated fantasy from Walt Disney Animation and at least four directors, “Raya and the Last Dragon” looks to combine influences of Southeast Asian mythology with hard-hitting action and the usual Disney magic. After the “Mulan” remake fumbled hard with Chinese mythology, can “Raya” cast magic with far more potency?

While there may be some problems with it, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is ultimately a skillfully-made action-fantasy that makes for one of the better recent Disney films and a satisfying comeback for star Tran.

After having been out of the spotlight since the harassment she received for her work in “The Last Jedi,” Tran really gets to shine here as the main protagonist. Through Raya, she gets to be vulnerable, haughty and courageous. While Raya goes through the same arc as many Disney protagonists, there’s a starkly cynical side to her personality. One she must, she gradually peels back and begins to finally turn things around and Tran really does impress here. Her outfit, a combination of the aforementioned influences with a side of Spaghetti Western also makes her stand further out from her peers.

Once again getting to show off her comedic side, Awkwafina entertains as Sisu, a goofball who describes herself as “that one kid who didn’t pitch in as much, but still ended up with the same grade.” While she initially dabbles pretty briefly in some out-of-place references to our present, Awkwafina does lend Sisu this really off-kilter, noodly vibe to her that helps give her some distinction as a powerful supporting character with more wisdom than you might think.

The supporting cast is rounded out by a more solemn Daniel Dae Kim, a hilariously gruff Benedict Wong and the fantastic Chan as Namarri. Namarri herself has an interesting parallel plotline to Raya’s and it’s fun to see them clash with one another. The supporting cast as a whole is solid.

Then, there’s the animation which is as crisp as Disney can be. In this vibrant world, Kumandra really pops through the art style. The colors for the five regions are distinct in their identities and lush with detail. The brief time spent with them doesn’t prevent them from leaving an impression. There may be a strong whiff of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” in the film, but I definitely don’t think it’s a bad thing. The filmmakers went to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and all sorts of places for research – this movie makes it evident that those trips pay off.

However, what really sets “Raya” apart is the filmmaker’s approach to the action. While western animation has had trouble catching up with its eastern counterparts on the combat front, “Raya” shows there’s a place for it here. The chases have some neat spectacle to them, while the hand-to-hand fighting has a juicy consistency and gravitas to it.

The script by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen is surprisingly poignant. While the dialogue isn’t groundbreaking and the characters fall into recognizable archetypes, there’s a nice honesty with how it deals with death and the breakdown of trust. There are some downsides to it, though, as some modern slang and references made it into the script. Still, it doesn’t take away from the heavier moments.

While some minor edit cuts distract, this is the best 3D western action this side of “Into The Spider-Verse,” even if it doesn’t quite measure up to that superhero masterpiece.

On a sonic level, James Newton Howard shows why he’s one of the best composers working today. His work supports the best moments and there’s a nice range of instrumentation while acknowledging the Southeast Asian influences while providing a slight old west touch to them. Some of his work is truly fist-pumping.

The last noteworthy part is the actual Southeast Asian representation. While Tran is of Vietnamese descent, to my knowledge there aren’t any other cast members with any connections to the region aside from the writers. For what it’s worth, I do think the movie is pretty respectful of the areas it takes its influences from and the writers being from there certainly helped. There’s more thoughtfulness here than in “Mulan.”

Like Raya herself, this film is a thunderous, unyielding adventure that ranks pretty well among recent Disney fare. With gripping action and the chance for Tran to further showcase her talent, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a solid addition to the Disney animated canon.

Will’s rating: 4/5

Featured image: Courtesy Disney

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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