For the 59th entry in the Disney masterpiece canon, the filmmakers from the mouse company are drawn to the fantastic world of Kumandra, where a lone warrior tries to bring the divided people back together. She is supported by a dragon and numerous other sidekicks. How RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON succeeded, we reveal that in our review.
OT: Raya and the last Dragon (USA 2021)
Long ago, in the magical world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived side by side in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves for the people. Today, 500 years later, evil returns to finally wipe out humanity. To prevent this, the lone warrior Raya (USA voice: Christina Ann Zalamea) travels through the broken land after a terrible loss in search of the legendary last dragon Sisu. Only with his help can peace return to Kumandra. At Raya’s side: her best friend Tuk Tuk – and many new acquaintances who support Raya on her campaign.
Female heroines have a long tradition at Disney: in the very first full-length Disney animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a young woman was the focus of the story. Many others, mostly princesses, followed her, from Cinderella in her adventure of the same name to Alice from Wonderland to Yasmin in “Aladdin”. You certainly can’t complain about the quantitative underrepresentation of the female gender at the animation company, but you can complain about the way in which it is integrated into the animated adventures. It didn’t even take the big #MeToo debate to become aware of the fact that Sleeping Beauty, Belle, etc. in their films are often less heroines than victims of circumstances and dependent on male supporting characters. Very few Disney films from earlier decades had any emancipatory value. Nevertheless, a positive trend reversal has taken place over the years. Already in “Mulan” a woman self-confidently faced the “male-dominated war”, in “Zoomania” a self-confident rabbit worked against her nature to become a clever policewoman and films like “Frozen” and “Moana” also promote self-confident heroines who take matters into their own hands to either save the world or their kingdom. The now 59th entry in the Disney masterpiece canon impressively follows the same lines of emancipatory animated adventures and establishes a tough heroine who strives for peaceful coexistence among people in a fantasy world with predominantly female supporting characters. But not everything about “Raya and the Last Dragon” is successful.
Raya meets the legendary dragon Sisu.
The brief foray into the history of female Disney characters as an introduction to a text about “Raya and the Last Dragon” could lead many readers to the wrong conclusion. Yes, author Qui Nguyen (“The Society”) and author Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich”) They may have given their story a tough heroine and cast many of the important supporting characters as female, but the film does not promote the resulting female empowerment as aggressively as one might expect given the circumstances. The fact that a majority of the characters in the film are female is not a statement, but one of numerous creative decisions that give the film its heart and soul. As you would expect from most Disney animated films, “Raya and the Last Dragon” also has a lot of that. Not only the warrior Raya, who is both self-confident and completely overwhelmed by her task, will effortlessly become a figure of identification for children and young people, but also her countless companions. And last but not least, the creation of the magical world of Kumandra – for whose landscape and architecture the filmmakers were inspired by the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos – is so full of visual inventiveness that The Disney universe once again opens up to its fans a completely new world that has never been seen before in their own cosmos and in which they absolutely want to lose themselves. The foundation for a multi-part franchise has been laid.
“Not only the warrior Raya, who is both self-confident and completely overwhelmed by her task, will effortlessly rise to become a figure of identification for children and young people, but also her countless companions.”
But no matter how abundant the potential for various other “Raya” films and series may be, in “Raya and the Last Dragon” there is only a hint of it – certainly also because a (too) deep immersion into the Kumandra’s history and the individual parts of the world that once fell apart would have exceeded the narrative framework. And so it has to be enough that the country’s history is dealt with in a rush in the first few minutes, leaving one or two question marks behind. That may be enough for the story to continue; Likewise, younger viewers should also be able to follow the events, even if some details in Kumandra’s complex backstory remain hidden from them. Nevertheless, the essentially simple treasure hunt plot does not do justice to the inventiveness of the world created for the film. The main thing in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is to collect the pieces of a certain artifact, one of which is in every part of Kumandra. One senses the idea of togetherness that is conjured up: “Only together can we reunite with Kumadra!”. With this message, which appeals to peaceful coexistence across ethnic boundaries, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is completely up to date. What’s more: the way in which the screenwriters include the associated theme of trust in their story touches on contemporary, earth-shattering issues and functions as a hopeful vision of a better world; a little naive, but as cheesy as presented here, the message seems completely sincere.
Sisu can also transform into a human…
But before “Raya and the Last Dragon” reveals its narrative strengths, especially in the last third, the film up to this point is primarily a fast-paced adventure that is primarily about the tricky ways Raya and her four-legged companion go Tuk Tuk comb through the broken apart Kumandra. The threat hovering over the two of them – after all, Raya is the only one who can still save the world – rarely shines through. Only in the home stretch do the far-reaching consequences of her actions become apparent, previously concealed by the action and slapstick-rich escapades of the title heroine. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is very entertaining fun for a long time, with many fight and chase scenes setting a high pace (even the opening sequence is a sprawling action sequence). There isn’t much time to breathe. Also because the group around Raya gets bigger and bigger as the story progresses. The sidekicks gradually add up, sometimes they’re really funny, other times they’re forgettable. But at least they all have relevance to the outcome of the story. Above all, of course, the “last dragon” mentioned in the title, originally spoken by “The Farewell” star Awkwafina, whose visual appearance also inspired the design of Sisu’s human incarnation. But in terms of character, the dragon also seemed to be based on Awkwafina’s liveliness. And so the legendary Sisu is not an awe-inspiring, elegant, let alone dangerous dragon, but above all a comic relief who enriches the film with a lot of humor and charm, but somewhat undermines the audience’s high expectations.
“The legendary Sisu is not an awe-inspiring, elegant, let alone dangerous dragon, but above all a comic relief who enriches the film with a lot of humor and charm, but somewhat undermines the audience’s high expectations.”
The optical design of the dragon also matches the detailed, sometimes even photorealistic look of the world animated here. While “Raya and the Last Dragon” makes a thoroughly adult impression from an aesthetic perspective and seems to be aimed primarily at a young audience with its numerous action scenes, the cuddly Sisu looks like it comes from a completely different film. There is something charming about this clash of different styles, but it can also be irritating in the absence of a unified style. The vocal chemistry between Kelly Marie Tran is convincing (“Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker”) and Awkwafina in the original and Christina Ann Zalamea (“Wishlist”) and Maria Hönig (Awkwafina’s regular speaker) in the USA dubbed version completely. They all internalized the characteristic peculiarities of their characters excellently.
Conclusion: “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the usual high-quality animated film adventure from Disney that comes with a surprising amount of action and, as usual, has a lot of heart. At the same time, at the end of the film you are left with the feeling that you haven’t seen everything in the world yet. So the film seems like a prelude to many more adventures. As a standalone adventure, it works as expected.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will be available to stream via Disney+ VIP access starting March 5th.