We’re a year into a pandemic that has fundamentally changed every facet of life. Given that the coronavirus has been front of mind for so long, it’s no surprise that a lot of films have begun to emerge with plagues, disasters and COVID itself at their core. What is surprising is just how many pandemic films were made before the real life pandemic.
At first glance Raya and the Last Dragon looks like it was crafted exactly for the COVID era. Here is a film about a fiercely divided nation consumed by an indiscriminate plague. If the factions could come together for the collective good, they could stop the threat they jointly face, but distrust and self interest simply won’t allow it. Sounds like a pretty accurate picture of life in 2020, impressive for a film conceived of and written years prior.
That nation is the former kingdom of Kumandra, a once united land in which people and dragons co-existed and thrived. Those days are just lore to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father (Daniel Dae Kim), chief of the Heart faction. Five hundred years have passed since a magical plague, the Drunn, ravaged Kumandra turning its citizens to stone. Legend has it that the dragons then sacrificed themselves for the humans, beating back the Drunn and leaving behind nothing but a single stone containing the last of the world’s dragon magic.
Protecting the dragon stone is Raya’s sworn duty and she fucked up. She put her faith in someone out to deceive her and the last vestige defending her home was destroyed. Each of Kumandra’s factions gathered a shard of the stone and dispersed across the land and the newly freed Drunn tore across the land turning citizens of each faction to stone. Divided, the kingdom fell into disarray again.
Raya’s guilt over the event’s in the film’s prologue are critical to the rest of her story. Before that she still had a certain fiery ambition that defines her character, but the weight of responsibility she feels is what drives her on a quest to find Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. It’s really brilliant character work making sky high stakes feel incredibly personal.
In that vein, there is a lot to like about Raya and the Last Dragon. Rooted in southeast Asian mythology, the core plot has it’s feet firmly planted on the ground. It’s the rare Disney animation that isn’t a musical, relying instead on animation and story to provide the heightened “magical” element people expect from Disney. That and, you know, dragons.
Raya’s voice work is spectacular as well. After facing some of the worst of the internet in the aftermath of cinematic masterpiece The Last Jedi, Kelly Marie Tran lends a weathered, yet driven quality to her title character. It’s a noticeably great lead voice performance that won’t get the recognition it deserves solely because it’s the second best in the film.
Awkwafina puts on a masterclass in voice acting as the last dragon, Sisu. Just as she’s shown in every prior performance, she is effortlessly hilarious in Raya. Every line is made funnier by the slightest inflection with which Awkwafina coats the delivery. It’s genuinely the once in every few years type vocal performance that makes you question why that type of acting isn’t more critically recognized.
While the animation and voice work is great, what makes Raya and the Last Dragon special is its rich thematic storytelling. Helmed by Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting), it should come as no surprise that this is a film with a lot to say about the world today. Kumandra is so bitterly divided that it’s tribes fail to even see each other as people. It may have been impossible to have foreseen our current pandemic, but Raya clearly saw mutually assured destruction as the inevitable result of such hateful disunity.
It’s one way Raya and the Last Dragon is at times oppressively cynical. Something that cannot be said of many Disney films. For almost the entire runtime, every person to whom Raya extends her trust promptly betrays her. A childhood friend (Gemma Chan), an enemy warrior (Benedict Wong), even a literal baby (Thalia Tran) take Raya’s trust and use it against her. Never has the mouse house been so down on human nature as a whole.
What happens next though is nothing short of miraculous. As Raya and Sisu traverse their fractured kingdom they continue extending their trust, even to those that have proven unworthy of it. With every stop, one for each fragment of McGuffin stone in its own faction of Kumandra, the pair find companions who wish to help them restore their home. On a molecular level, this is a whole film about building community. The typical Disney ending might feel naive in a film so consistently cynical as Raya and the Last Dragon were it not for the diverse coalition that Raya curates. Instead of the inevitable sappy ending being aspirational, it’s earned.
A message that only unity will save us may ultimately still be naive in a real world application, in fact it almost certainly is. But Raya and the Last Dragon does have something important to say. Unification doesn’t happen without work and consistent effort. All of the progress in this adventure comes as a result of peoples’ decisions and action. The magical elements are nothing but icing on a very human story.
Even if Raya and the Last Dragon fundamentally represents nothing but wishful thinking for a deeply divided world, it still matters. It’s still important for kids to see that most people just want what’s best for the world, no matter what facially divides us. It’s wonderful that they now have a film that shows the merits of working for a world better and more cohesive than the one they have.
TL;DR Raya and the Last Dragon is a smart, relevant adventure heightened by two stellar lead vocal performances. 7/10