Whilst Raya and the Last Dragon may work with familiar ingredients, concepts and even sequences at times – this shares a lot of the same DNA with Disney’s own Moana – it presents them in such a manner that it manages to feel like a far more fresher take than what it is at its core.
In a stunning opening sequence that provides enough backstory for the Qui Nguyen/Adele Lim-penned script to eventually propel itself forward, we learn that humans and dragons lived harmoniously together in a land known as Kumandra. Harmony was short-lived though as a sentient plague – a cluster of purple-hued clouds dubbed “The Druun” – ravaged the land, turning anyone it came into contact with into stone. To save Kumandra and its people, the dragons sacrificed themselves to imprison The Druun inside a magical gem, one that would ultimately be shattered across the regions of Kumandra, severing the relationship of its people and containing them to their own province.
Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), the wise chief of Heart, one of the five districts – the others being Spine, Talon, Fang, and Tail – hopes to restore peace through his own hospitable methods of inviting each region to come together in a feast of sorts. This naturally isn’t as successful as he wishes, and when the people of each community hope to claim Heart’s portion of the gem, The Druun is unintentionally summoned, leading Benja’s headstrong warrior daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) on a quest to locate and reassemble the gem from each region, intending to uncover the supposed “last dragon”, Sisu (Awkwafina), who has the power to both defeat The Druun and reunite Kumandra once and for all.
Substituting the usual elaborate musical numbers with intricately choreographed – and stunningly animated – fight sequences, Raya has a live-action sensibility about it (some of the animation renderings are impossibly beautiful) as it leans heavily into the adventure genre over more traditional family friendly fare. It isn’t all darkness though as Disney are aware of their branding, and in lightening up the material around extended action sequences and the villainy of The Druun, the film presents not only Sisu as a wonderfully innocent, wise-cracking creation (maybe a little too calculated in her design to put younger minds at ease), but gives Raya a loveable pill-bug/armadillo mash-up creature named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) as her companion, and throws in an adorable baby sidekick, a character that just so happens to be a con-artist, for good measure too.
As to be expected, Raya is a film with a message at its core, with the somewhat standard if-we-push-our-differences-aside-we-can-unite-for-the-good-of-mankind narrative as its underlying note. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the film admittedly does hammer the communication surrounding this a little hard at times through its dialogue. What’s more successful is when it opts to present this through action, and so the film’s rather emotionally stirring climax, which touches on sacrifice and trust, feels all the more earned; it also highlights an interesting dynamic between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan), the daughter of the cheiftess of Fang, whose own warrior inclinations means there’s less of a typical hero/villain relationship between the two.
The regal father, the rebellious daughter, a colourful companion, and a faraway macguffin do indeed give Raya and the Last Dragon a sense of familiarity within the Disney canon, but thankfully this is a formula that the studio are all too aware how to navigate successfully and skewer ever so much to its own identity.
Raya and the Last Dragon is screening in Australian theatres from March 4th, 2021. It will be available for Premiere Access on Disney+ from March 5th, 2021.