“Raya and the Last Dragon” seems like it should be based on some ancient tale passed down through generations.
It’s not, but that doesn’t keep the latest Disney animated venture from spinning a fairly complex tale.
Set in the fictional world of Kumandra (most likely Southeast Asia), the film features plenty of action and a story of hope centered around a plucky (read: Mulan) girl named Raya who has to help her father protect the country from some outside force called the Druun, which can turn people into stone.
Flying dragons apparently protected residents from outside forces but they, too, hit a rocky patch in life. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is betrayed by a friend, a protective gem is shattered, and Kumandra is practically the Pride Lands after Scar took over. Six years later, Raya tries to revive Sisu (Awkwafina), one of the dragons, with the gem.
When that happens, the turquoise beast points out she wasn’t the “best” dragon, just a good swimmer. That sets up a Lilo and Stitch relationship and helps launch a quest for the other pieces of the gem throughout the realm (shades of “The Avengers”). Before long, the two have assembled a motley crew of warriors designed to bring things back to some kind of normal.
It’s a lot to follow but, luckily, directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada have made this such a visual feast it’s hard not to get caught up in the worlds that unfold.
Using lots of pastels, the animators make “Raya” pop on a big screen. Sisu’s shape-shifting ways (not unlike the Genie’s in “Aladdin”) provide what comedy this very dramatic story has to offer. While Awkwafina doesn’t quite have the vocal variety Robin Williams did, she does make a flying dragon pretty darn huggable.
Tran, meanwhile, plays the no-nonsense card and comes off as a Disney princess who doesn’t need a prince to offer up a glass slipper. She’s a strong, independent woman who misses the guidance dad provided.
Longer than most animated films, “Raya” has too much mythology for its own good. Had this been based on something specific, it might not have needed so much backstory. Thankfully, the directors mix up their storytelling techniques (“Kung Fu Panda” could have been an influence) and make it seem more impressive than it really is.
Tuk Tuk, Raya’s sidekick (a cross between an armadillo and a pill bug) provides the “cute” factor even Sisu can’t. Flying dragons, of course, are a sight to behold. But a lumbering pal has to be worth its weight in something.
While younger audiences will tune out much of the background, they will enjoy the battles (physical and emotional) Raya fights and the way she stands up for what is right. Sisu isn’t quite the Pete’s Dragon you’d want her to be, but when she changes form, she becomes the buddy you’re glad is along for any ride.