Release Date: 05/03/2021
Voice Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan
Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa
Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)
Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s latest offering after the insipid Mulan and is one of the most visually appealing and thematically rich adventures that we have seen from Disney in a while. The story unfolds in the fictional world of Kumandra where dragons coexist with the humans and are the reason behind the availability of water and other material necessary for the sustenance of life. The people of Kumandra are living in plenty and peace when their world is threatened by the evil druun, a mystical creature that resembles a plague and turns living things into stones. The dragons in a last ditched effort to save humanity channel their powers into a gem and give one of their own, Sisu the command of the gem. Sisu unleashes its power, destroys the druun but perishes herself along with all other dragons but not before saving all of humanity.
Years later, the gem becomes a reason for animosity between the different tribes of Kumandra as they believe that the one who holds the gem holds the key to a life of prosperity. At the height of this conflict the different tribes of Kumandra war over the gem and unintentionally break it unleashing the druuns once more on humanity. When all hope is lost, Princess Raya, the last descendent of the chief of one of the tribes takes it upon herself to find the last dragon, Sisu, and take her help to restore the gem and end the terror of the druuns. However, the task at hand proves to be overwhelming as she not only has to bring back Sisu from her last known location but also wrest the 4 different pieces of the broken gem from the four different tribes who all pose different and deadly challenges. The rest of the film is about if Raya can accomplish this feat and if she can vanquish the druuns and restore peace and order in Kumandra.
The animation quality here is sensational. Every time I feel that Hollywood has reached the pinnacle of success in terms of how far animated images could go, they just push the wall a little further and come up with something that disarms me completely. Raya and the Last Dragon is not only beautiful to look at and is as colourful as an animated film could get, it has unprecedented depth in the rendering of human emotions. This is explained in the portion that Young Raya spends with her father before all hell breaks loose. One look at the characters and we can actually peek into their psyche through the rendering of their emotions on their respective faces. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do but the animators accomplish it with easy and organic realism. The film has some of the most scintillating action sequences of recent times and while the action is never repetitive, it never ceases to have a sense of physicality that is perennial to its success and impact.
The film has four directors and it was a matter of concern for me as too many cooks often spoil the broth. Thankfully, in this case, the cooks seemed to be in perfect synergy and they cook up one tasty broth. The biggest surprise for me was how consistent the film felt even though there must have been differences of opinion between the directors who most definitely must have had their different visions for the film and the characters. The characters are one of the highest points of the film and the voice talent literally breathed life into them. Awkwafina leads the pack from the front with her rendering of Sisu, a dragon that is asked to do something that is way beyond her abilities and yet somehow proves herself equal to the task. I just loved how the character looked at humanity and how good she presumed humans to be. In her view of the human race lay the key to the success of Raya’s plan and it proves to be one of the biggest takeaways from the film. Awkwafina owns the character and brings her distinct style and panache to it by virtue of which we are able to see her image in the dragon Sisu.
Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya with the exact exhilaration and emotional overtones that were required for the character to make an impact. By the time Raya comes into the picture, she has endured the loss of her father and the annihilation of the world that she has known and grown up in. All this happened because she trusted someone more than she should have.
This fact casts a looming shadow on everything that she does and particularly says. This shows in the rendering of the character’s expressions and is also brought out beautifully through Kelly Marie Tran’s subtle voice modulations. A lot of the character’s charm results from how it is voiced and Kelly Marie Tran deserves brownie points for her sensational voice acting. Gemma Chan as her adversary Namaari is equally proficient and adds a lot to the altercations between the two. She serves as the perfect foil for Tran’s Raya.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a must-watch for its story, treatment, voice acting, and gorgeous animation. A lot is being said about how Raya is the much-needed South Asian Disney princess that was the need of the hour at a time when the world is more divided than ever before. I feel that in zeroing in on the ethnicity of the protagonist, the film critics are perpetually undermining the very essence of the unifying emotion and thought process that the film’s story and treatment hope to convey and invoke in its viewer. The film teaches us valuable life lessons using Raya’s journey and relationships as a tool and I loved everything that the film had to share and preach. While visually spellbinding and rich in entertainment, Raya and the Last Dragon are equally potent and affecting in its story and what it seeks to achieve thematically.