THE STORY – Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. However, when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
THE CAST – Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran & Alan Tudyk
THE TEAM – Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada (Directors),Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
By Nicole Ackman
”How did the world get so broken?” the latest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios asks. It’s a fitting question for the world of Kumandra, but it also resonates in the world that we’re inhabiting today. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and co-directed by Paul Briggs and John Ripa, the film combines the adventure of “Moana” with the action of “Mulan” for an exciting, if somewhat formulaic tale. But its setting in Southeast Asia, portraying a blend of different cultures from that region, is a first for Disney.
Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim’s script is so heavy on mythology and exposition that it can be a little difficult to keep track of everything. A sequence at the beginning, with a different and very cool animation style, gives the backstory for the film. Five hundred years before, Kumandra was a paradise where people and dragons lived in harmony. But then, destructive forces called the Druun invaded the land and turned many people and dragons to stone. The last dragon, named Sisu, sacrificed herself to save humanity, but when the humans came back to life, the dragons did not.
We learn that Kumandra has been split into five lands, each named after a part of a dragon, that are at odds with each other. Raya’s family has been the Dragon Gem’s guardians for generations, but her father, Chief Benja, hopes to reunify the lands. When tragedy strikes, reawakening the Druun, Raya sets out on a quest to find the last dragon and restore peace to the land.
The movie deals with some heavy themes without becoming overpowered by them or losing its appeal to children. Many of the characters are grieving family members lost to the Druun. There’s the question of if a divided land can learn to come together as one again. But most centrally, Raya must learn if it’s possible to trust people again despite the broken world she lives in and the betrayal in the past that has left her bitter.
Raya is a great lead character, made better by Kelly Marie Tran’s energetic voice acting. She’s determined and enthusiastic, but also an interesting combination of guarded and naive. Awkwafina also gives a great voice performance as the quirky and funny Sisu. The cast is full of great actors like Gemma Chan as Namaari and Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s father, Benji. Plus, the adorable Tuk Tuk is one of the cutest Disney sidekick characters of recent years.
The computer animation is beautiful, especially in the variety of the depictions of each of the different lands. The film is very colorful and dynamic and the costume design is particularly great, with lots of different textures and fabrics used. It’s great to see characters, like Namaari, with more creative hairstyling than your average animated film as well.
The film is accompanied by a Walt Disney Animation Studios short called “Us Again,” written and directed by Zach Parrish, who was the head of animation on “Big Hero 6.” It’s a dance-centered short and features the work of choreographers and dancers Keone and Mari Madrid, who helped bring an elderly couple rediscovering their youthful passion and movement to life. The animation of water in it is particularly stunning.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is the first Disney film to revolve specifically around Southeast Asian cultures. While it’s not a perfect representation and there were some criticisms of the casting, it’s a great step towards Disney telling more diverse stories. It’s elevated by its beautiful animation and the epic score by James Newton Howard. The greatest testimony to “Raya and the Last Dragon” being an exciting adventure is that I wanted to watch it again as soon as it ended immediately.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – It has beautiful animation, fantastic action sequences, and endearing, complex characters.