Raya and the Last Dragon is an enjoyably zippy, quippy, and visually lush animated adventure. It doesn’t quite break ground in the Disney adventure movie formula as it follows certain predetermined beats: there’s a heroic lead, a comedic animated sidekick who surprisingly supplies pathos and some supporting oddball characters, but there are some formula tweaks along the way. It looks consistently great, has solid action and one-liners as things pay off emotionally in the finale. Also the story of a post-apocalyptic land ravaged by plague that is healed by everyone getting along is fairly resonant.
The world of Kaumandra was a place of magical dragons but the scourge of the Druun has wasted the land, turning people into stone. The only thing that can ward the Druun off is a magical dragon orb that was shattered into pieces across the kingdom. Self-professed dragon nerd and adventurer, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is trying to gather the orb shards to cleanse the world and get her father back. She is shocked to discover the last surviving dragon, the jokey and perpetually upbeat Sisu (Awkwafina), and together they try to find the missing pieces. But standing in their way is Raya’s constant foil, Namaari (Gemma Chan), who wants to keep the dragon orb for her own kingdom.
On the surface, Sisu the Water dragon voiced by celebrity comedian Awkwafina is sort of an amalgamation of the blue morphing Robin Williams Genie from Aladdin and the chatty Eddie Murphy Mushu dragon from Mulan. It definitely follows the Disney sidekick formula but still Awkwafina makes for an enjoyably jarring vocal take on the majestic creature. Her heavy New York accent seems amusing coming from the exquisite looking creature and her one-liners are pretty great, like when she derisively calls a dancing kid driving their boat “Captain Pop-And-Lock”. The design of the dragon is downright cuddly, probably easier to sell plush toys that way. And sometimes Sisu turns into a human for a few fun scenes, like when she ends up in town, grabbing a bunch of things she says she’ll pay “On credit” and then immediately gets into trouble.
Sisu’s sense of optimism about the world is contrasted with Raya believing that she has to unite the gems by herself. The opening prologue shows kid Raya and kid Namaari coming together as friends until the orb shattering divides the population and the creepy Druun petrify Raya’s father. The kids as buddies in the opening prologue that dramatically pays offs when they’re young adults seems very much nicked from Frozen. Tran as Raya puts in an energetic and expressive vocal performance. One of the movies funnier running gags is Raya makes her own jerky that Sisu politely accepts and in a moment of crisis Raya admits that her jerky is terrible. Namaari is Raya’s rival but deep down they really care about each other which undercuts about every scene. Both Raya and Namaari are fighting for the same thing they just don’t want to admit it. There is a screwy bit of plotting later on when Namaari is responsible for something really bad happening to Sisu and she tries say Raya’s fault too which is a bit of a stretch.
The real baddies are the Druun, who are faceless, formless black and purple clouds that turn people and dragons into stone. This makes it a bit of a monster movie as the unstoppable horde feels like something out of Aliens. The Druun don’t exactly have character but they feel genuinely threatening. The story about how the entire world has been taken over by a plague and the heroes are hunting for a way to disperse a cure feels appropriate in the current climate. Although, by the end, their quest basically boils down to the action movie cliché of pointing the glowy thing at the darkness.
As with many team up adventure movies, Raya acquires a gaggle of sidekicks, making this sort of kid-friendly Avengers. There’s even an Avengers actor here as Benedict Wong voices Tong and his bombastic vocal delivery is hilarious, like when he attempts to scare Raya and Sisu and utterly fails. There’s also a toddler con artist and a gang of monkeys who are good for throwaway visual gags. The duo hitch a ride of a restaurant boat led by the smooth talking Boun (Izaac Wang) and he’s good for brief asides.
The action scenes are sufficiently epic, like a climatic throw down with Raya and Namaari that seeps with drama. Probably one of the best visual moments is when Sisu tells the tale of how the dragon orb was forged in a single, long take. A climatic scene involving each character with a piece of the orb inside a cloud of dangerous Druun is emotionally stirring. Also the movie throws in lots of unexpected comedic moments, like when Sisu tells her plan of simply being nice to Namaari to get the orb piece and it suddenly gets really stupid, or Boun plan’s which becomes an elaborate bit of over the top action.
Even though Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t change much in the Disney adventure movie format, it has cool scenes, painterly visuals and big laughs. The best stuff are the random little gags, the actual moments of genuine emotional drama, and how dang impressive the whole thing looks.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan