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Raya and the Last Dragon
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim
Featuring the voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkafina and Sandra Oh
Classification PG; 108 mins
Dragons are a hot commodity in our household. Television shows with dragons. Books featuring dragons. Toys that unfurl or unhinge to become dragons. It’s a thing. So when my kids saw the trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon – unbeknownst to me – they knew this film would be up their alley. And I had an enjoyable experience watching it with them, too.
Maybe it’s because we’re all feeling overwhelmed right now, especially when a weird sense of gloom marks your interactions with your children. Any excuse to tune out the real world and escape into a fantasy land is welcome – especially through a film that’s about trust and the loving bond between family and friends, and also manages to deliver a couple of solid laughs in between.
The story goes that long ago in a land called Kumandra, humans and dragons lived in harmony. However, when an evil force called the Druun – amorphous beings born out of human discord – threatened Kumandra, the dragons got destroyed along with the humans. Except for one dragon, Sisu, whose magic gem dispelled the Druun.
Five hundred years on, Kumandra has split up into five lands, each named for a part of the dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) grows up as a warrior princess in Heart, rumoured to be the most prosperous because it guards Sisu’s gem. Her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), wants to see the five lands reunite. However, his overture of friendship goes awry because of a betrayal, causing the five tribes to become even more mistrustful of each other. Six years after that betrayal, it’s up to Raya to seek out Sisu (Awkafina) and restore peace.
Despite Disney’s checkered history with Asian warrior women (*cough Mulan cough*), Raya is a fun character to watch. As a guardian of the gem, she’s a well-trained martial artist, with an adorable animal sidekick, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk). She’s also got plenty of sass, especially when dealing with her arch-nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), who is a formidable opponent.
Namaari’s toned arms and cool undercut are serious #goals, too. But we never get a sense of what exactly Namaari’s beef is with Raya, though it seems there might be some deeper motivations for her actions.
Most of the giggles came from Awkwafina, of course. The raspy-voiced rapper-comedian delivers the PG-level punchlines with perfect comic timing, and is equally believable in her entreaties to Raya to have more belief in her fellow humans.
The film’s charm also comes from its Southeast Asian setting. Writers Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen clearly drew from their Malaysian and Vietnamese heritages respectively, which can be seen in details such as the textile design or linguistic influences. The filmmaking team also made extensive trips to Laos, Indonesia and Thailand to draw inspiration. That attention to detail is evident in everything from the film’s landscape to the architectural flourishes in many scenes, such as the night-market vibe of the Talon region.
Yet, there’s also a decidedly American touch to the film. While quips about single parents who crack groan-inducing dad jokes are pretty universal, the bantering dialogue among the characters – even if they happen to revolve around jackfruit jerky – follow the familiar beats of American pop culture.
Raya and the Last Dragon can offer some life lessons, if you go looking for them. At a time when the world seems hopelessly divided, and seeds of distrust are easily sown, its message of taking a leap of faith is perhaps more relevant to the grownups. I’ll admit to welling up for a moment towards the end, even though I wasn’t as invested in the movie as my kids were.
Maybe it’s just the state of the world that we are in right now, but Raya and her band of friends offer a little balm for the soul.
Raya and the Last Dragon opens in Canadian theatres March 5, the same day it will be available to stream for Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.