A lot has happened in the world since Disney's last original animated film was released 5 years ago. However, Disney are still relentlessly aiming to overturn the racial stereotyping and cultural appropriations which defaced many of their earlier films. Moana was a massive step in the right direction, representing the Pacific Islands and their cultural heritage. With the release of Disney's latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, the onus is shifted towards South-East Asia. It is a staple of the genre which is both beautifully moving and politically nuanced, and what happens when you take Carlos Lopez Estrada, the director of the impactful Blindspotting, and combine his talents with established Disney co-director Don Hall.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a Disney classic in terms of narrative, with just enough to define itself outside of the formulaic baseline. It is a triumph in modern voice acting and possibly their most gorgeous animated creation to date, placing itself on par with some of Pixar's best. The immersive world of Kumandra is set up quickly but spectacularly, with wonderful visual effects that create a vibrant, spanning world to contain its characters.
Kumandra's largest river meanders to form the outline of a dragon, compartmentalising the world to illustrate the land occupied by its main tribes: Tail, Spine, Talon, Fang and Heart. We follow Heart resident Raya, voiced skilfully by Kelly Marie Tran, whose family is tasked with protecting a magical orb. This orb, the envy of all Kumandra, was created by ancient dragons to protect the population from the Druun, a collection of purple spirits which resemble a more chaotic version of the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow.
When tribal greed leads to the orb being smashed, the world is thrown into chaos as the Druun reappear to once again ravage the lands of Kumandra. Raya must find the last dragon, Sisu, and unite the clans and their pieces of the orb before the land is irreversibly destroyed. As with most animated films, the visuals are important, but the characters are essential. In this case, Disney delivers handily on both. The pervading image of badass Raya riding Tuk Tuk, her pill-bug/armadillo hybrid, through the deserted plains of Kumandra like Mad Max, will become established in animated legend. Voiced by Disney veteran Alan Tudyk, Tuk Tuk is an Appa-esque creature, representing one of many conspicuous nods to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Early in the narrative we are introduced to the titular last dragon, Sisu; a remnant of a peaceful union between the tribes and the dragons that existed in a previous age. Sisu provides a large portion of the comic relief, and is immaculately played by Awkwafina, in possibly the most expressive and dynamic voice-over in animated history. Raya and Sisu drift along the integral river, recruiting new members from each tribe along the way, adding to their increasingly unorthodox gang. The entrepreneur Boun from Tail, the fearsome warrior Tong from Spine, and from Talon, ‘con baby' Noi and her three monkey companions, who mirror the Penguins of Madagascar in sheer lunacy.
James Newton Howard, an esteemed Disney maestro who provided the score for Dinosaur, Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, sets the tone early with a buoyant, exciting soundtrack that reflects the ongoing rollercoaster. This is typified by a chase scene in Talon where the masterful animation goes through ranges of different motion to create a stylised action set piece, with Newton Howard's chaotic score providing the necessary beats. Scenes such as, in addition to the ground-breaking fight scenes, really set Raya apart from its predecessors visually.
The main issues with Raya and the Last Dragon lie in its tempo. The first act is wonderfully crafted, and the final act is a beautiful payoff, but the middle portion of the film suffers from frantic pacing and a distinct lack of focus. In this regard, its biggest strength is also its weakness. When attempting to appease 12 Asian countries and over half a billion people, from varying cultures with a myriad of idiosyncrasies, it is easy to imagine why things may get messy. We furiously jump from tribe to tribe, picking up new characters without consolidating the established ones. Raya and Sisu's connection is not nearly as refined as Maui and Moana's, simply because there is no downtime to cement and augment it. Dropping one of the clans and focussing a little more directly on the lead characters would have led to beneficial character development and increased the stakes come the denouement.
Ultimately though, Raya and the Last Dragon will stand the test of time and emerge as a fan-favourite. Its overarching message is simple, but extremely powerful in today's polarising landscape. In the face of adversity of any nature, placing blame is facile compared to addressing issues with bipartisan collaboration – ‘But someone has to take the first step.' The political tones are not thinly veiled and reveal Estrada's influential touch, propelling a beautiful narrative with excellent characters into an important and timely message which will resonate not only with the people of South East Asia, but with film fans worldwide.
Dir: Carlos Lopez Estrada, Don Hall
Music: James Newton Howard
Runtime: 107 minutes