Right from the get-go, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ makes its intentions clear: to transform our protagonist into the latest Disney action heroine, a princess capable of saving the world off her own bat by virtue of her spectacular fighting skills, ingenuity, and courage. But our heroine also learns how to count on others when it comes to weathering the obstacles she encounters in her path by recruiting a motley crew of fierce and adorable pariahs along the way.
To begin at the beginning, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is set in Kumandra, an imaginary world inhabited by humans and dragons living in perfect harmony. That was until mysterious evil forces threatened to destroy everything, prompting the dragons to throw themselves on the sword, sacrificing their lives to save Humanity. 500 years later, the land is split into five warring clans with a young Raya acting as guardian of the Dragon Gem, the last remaining vestiges of these fantastic creatures’ magic and the green light for the warring clans to engage in an all-out power-grab.
After a spate of dramatic setbacks, including Raya’s father being turned to stone, our warrior embarks upon a quest in search of the legendary and last remaining dragon, Sisu; to recover the fragments of the gemstone now scattered throughout a post-apocalyptic land laid waste; and to restore peace to our battling clans forging a union of allies to fight against the villainous forces. Piece of cake, right?.
There’s a certain videogame feel to the storyline as Raya sets off on her adventure, a solitary heroine working her way across the land as the story progresses, encountering its inhabitants and learning from them as she acquires fresh skills and knowledge. As such, many of the scenes depicting Raya training or solving puzzles are more reminiscent of ‘Tomb Raider’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ than of ‘Frozen’. By the same token, there isn’t one single musical number or fairytale romance. And neither are found to be lacking.
Visually, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is spectacular, both for the top-notch craftmanship in the animation, down to the very last detail of Kumandra and the mesmerizing action scenes delivered throughout the film: a fable about accepting and needing to put the common good above individual interests and past rivalries. And, the point being drilled into us, almost to the point of exhaustion, is that trust in oneself and in others is the only way by which this world (our world?) can be saved. But the journey is so entertaining that you wouldn’t want to cut a second from the feature.
Another aspect deserving of special mention is the fact that not only are we presented with a strong female protagonist, but also her archrival is a woman, another fierce warrior named Namaari, and even the dragon in the tale, the innocent and kind Sisu. To boot, both our princesses and the rest of the cast are a veritable representation of ethnic diversity. Hardly surprising when you realize the writers’ room is comprised of Malaysian American screenwriter Adele Lim, responsible for the hit show ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, and Vietnamese American playwright Qui Nguyen, who worked on series such as ‘Dispatches from Elsewhere’, ‘The Society’ and ‘Incorporated’; with Mexican American Carlos López Estrada as one of the movie’s directors, whose TV credits include ‘Blindspotting’ and ‘Legion’.
In a nutshell, and despite the obvious challenges, a hundred-year-old studio like Disney has created an epic picture the whole family can enjoy, complete with a powerful story of a broken world where the only hope for salvation is unity and cooperation. As is the Disney hallmark, they’ve managed to pull this off through adeptly combining tragedy and comedy. Not to mention a diverse cast lead by women where each character enhances the whole, building a lavish universe filled with dynamism and nuance while delivering some of the best action scenes Disney has ever produced.
Another victim of the Covid times we live in, ‘Raya And The Last Dragon’ premieres this coming Friday March 5th in theatres and on the streaming service Disney+ simultaneously available via the premium service at an additional fee. The feature will premier along with the animation short, ‘Us Again’, a story of an elderly couple who reignite their youthful passion for life and love through dance. Fresh stories and contemporary forms of distribution for unconventional times.