Producers: Peter Del Vecho and Osnot Shurer Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada Screenplay: Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wong, Thalia Tran, Jona Xiao, Lucille Soong. Patti Harrison, Ross Butler and Alan Tudyk Distributor: Walt Disney Motion Pictures, Disney+
Quality and quantity sometimes go together, but often not. “Raya and the Lost Dragon” demonstrates both truths.
On the one hand, it’s visually gorgeous, with painterly backgrounds, masterfully rendered action sequences and impressive character art. All of that is a tribute to production designers Helen Mingjue Chen and Paul A. Felix, as well as the army of craftsmen who worked on the project—their numbers confirmed by the fact that the closing credits run a full ten minutes. Special kudos are due those who captured the varied Southeast Asian locales with accuracy and beauty, and the soaring score by James Newton Howard adds to the awesomeness of it all.
On the other hand, despite the fact that no fewer than eight persons, including the two credited screenwriters, share a “story by” credit, the narrative is disappointingly commonplace, the characterizations skimpy and the dialogue gratingly “contemporary.” There’s a lot of “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones”-type stuff going on here, with eastern elements like martial arts added along with memories of Disney Past.
The plot is fundamentally a “can’t we just all get along?” tale with ancillary threads about the importance of family )of all sorts) and, if you can believe it, nation-building (or, more accurately, rebuilding).
It’s set in the imaginary land of Kumandra, which, we’re told by the grown-up Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) as she tools around through what she calls her “broken” world on her live vehicle Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a combination of pill bug and armadillo. She tells us that the land was once united, peaceful and prosperous, with humans and their dragon protectors living in harmony, until fearsome beasts called Druun attacked, literally turning people and beasts to stone. The dragons fought valiantly against them, and eventually sacrificed themselves to save mankind, with the last if them vanquishing the amorphous creatures with a magical gem before itself disappearing, leaving the gem behind.
But the land was torn into five separate realms, named after parts of the dragon—Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon. Raya is the princess of the Heart region, which houses the gem; she’s brought up as a spunky warrior by her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), but he surprises her by announcing his decision to invite the chiefs of the other four tribes to a conference to reunite the land.
During the meeting Raya is befriended by Namaari (voiced as a child by Jona Xiao), daughter of Fang chief Virana (Sandra Oh), but she proves to be part of her mother’s scheme to steal the gem. In the ensuing melee, the gem is shattered and its pieces scattered among the realms; that occasions the return of the dreaded Druun, which petrify many, including Benja.
Now, six years later, Raya, a self-professed cynic about the motives of her fellow humans, has vowed to find and resurrect the last dragon Sisu, who turns out to be a wisecracking turquoise beastie voiced by Awkwafina. Sisu readily admits that her petrified siblings were all more powerful than she, but does have the power to shapeshift into human form—and is great at swimming.
The last ability comes in handy at points in the journey Raya and Sisu take through the various realms of Kumandra to collect the pieces of the dragon gem and, by reuniting them, defeat the Druun and restore unity to the country. Along the way Sisu’s trusting nature is contrasted with Raya’s habit of suspecting the worst in others, and the two learn from one another.
They also assemble an extended family as they adventure through the realms—all of them also having suffered loss in the Druun years. They include Boun (Izaac Wong), a boy restaurateur; Tong (Benedict Wong), a Shrek-like giant; and Noi (Thalia Tran), a con baby who leads a fuzzy band of little thieves.
In the end, though Spine, Tail and Talon all provide big action moments (especially Talon, where they encounter both Noi and the shifty chief Dang Hu voiced by Lucille Soong), it’s Fang that proves most difficult to the completion of the mission. Varani continues her imperious rule there, and Namaari (now voiced by Gemma Chan) is still her instrument, determined to stymie Raya and secure power for her mother.
It’s inevitable that there will be a showdown between Raya and Namaari, though the latter’s motivations prove more complex than simple villainy, and that ultimately harmony will be restored (along with many whose loss our heroes have endured for so long). What’s surprising is how protracted this process, as edited by Fabienne Rawley and Shannon Stein, is. Some elements of it are amusing—as when the various members of Raya’s merry band offer suggestions about how fortress Fang might be taken—but there’s more than a suggestion of bloating here, with multiple climaxes and codas.
There are aspects of “Raya and the Last Dragon” that all too obviously fit into the desire not just of Disney but of Hollywood generally to respond to contemporary concerns, social and commercial—the emphasis on strong female characters, and outreach to the exploding Asian market. And it’s equally clear that the makers looked back to “Aladdin” for inspiration about the relationship between Raya and Sisu. On the other hand, the movie has a dark undercurrent about a fractured humanity that can’t be obliterated by even the sunniest of endings, a more mature subtext than most animated family films attempt.
One is left with a mixture of admiration for the film’s astonishing visual achievement and regret that it hasn’t been matched by equally imaginative narrative choices. The eye is constantly enchanted by “Raya,” but its episodic structure and mixture of gung-ho action and sentimentality is redolent of formula. It will certainly hold the interest of younger viewers—though adolescents more than toddlers—and adults will find it impressive from a purely formal standpoint. But it feels more studiously manufactured than genuinely magical.
A word might be added about Zach Parrish’s “Us Again,” a seven-minute short that precedes “Raya” in theatres and is also available on Disney+. A wordless but tuneful ode to the joy and romance of dance, it’s about an elderly man who resists his wife’s encouragement to get out of his chair and boogie again, as they did in their youth, until a sudden inspiration brings him out of his lethargy and he follows his wife to the pier where they replay old triumphs, tripping the light fantastic once more. It’s pure fantasy, of course, but charmingly sentimental, and lovingly animated to choreography by Keone and Mari Madrid.