In theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access on Friday is “Raya and the Last Dragon,” a gorgeous fantasy adventure film inspired by the culture and lore of Southeast Asia. The film is released with a theatrical short “Us Again,” Disney Animation’s first short released in 5 years, which shows how an elderly couple regain their vitality through music, dance and rain on one magical night.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” tells the story of the land of Kumandra where, 500 years before the story begins, a groups of monsters called the Druun raged through the kingdom, turning the people and dragons to stone. One powerful dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), channeled her power into a gem that could destroy the Druun and revitalize the people of Kumandra, but could not bring back the other dragons or prevent the people of the land from fracturing and warring for the gem’s powers. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), are from the land of Heart, who possess and protect the dragon stone. After her father invites the four other lands to their home as a show of unity, Raya is betrayed by Namaari (Gemma Chen) of the land of Fang, and must embark on a quest to find the last dragon, defeat the Druun once again and reunite Kumandra once and for all.
The first half of “Raya and the Last Dragon” feels like a fantasy RPG in the best way possible: as Raya travels from land to land she collects allies into her party with unique strengths and personalities. In Tail, she meets Buon (Izaac Wong), a charismatic shrimp boat restauranteur who carries her to Talon, where she is tricked by a “con baby” named Little Noi (Thalia Tran) who joins their venture. In Spine she is captured and then rescued by Tong (Benedict Wong), a fearsome mountain man whose village was destroyed by the Druun. Throughout her journey, Raya must confront Namaari, the daughter of Virana, leader of Fang (Sandra Oh), and Raya’s foil, who opposes her at turn.
This film is simply wonderful. The cast, the animation, the care of the creators come together for a really beautifully crafted film. I’m hesitant when films base a mythical land on an amalgamation of cultures from disparate places simply because they are in the same region. Writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, and the entire creative team behind “Raya and the Last Dragon” did a masterful job of highlighting the culture, customs, traditions, clothes, hair, weapons and food of Southeast Asia without reducing the region down to a bland fusion of stereotypes. By showing people of the land of Fang, Talon, Tail, Heart and Spine, the film shows distinct cultures of Kumandra, while also emphasizing the traditions that the people have in common. “Raya and the Last Dragon” also does the difficult, but crucial work of correcting some of the visual stereotypes and markers of the region on film. Martial arts and dragons tend to be mainstays of any film centering on Asian characters or legends, but this film reclaims them by displaying weaponry and martial arts that are specific and accurate to the region. Similarly, rather than brutal, wise dragons usually seen on screen, Sisu is, above all, a comedic character and a ray of sunshine whose power comes from trust and connection, not teeth or fire.
While much can be said about the animation of the film, particularly the unique 2D paper art backstory that mimics the style of ancient art in the region, the care of the creators is best found in the small details. Raya’s nose, the fuzz of Namaari’s undercut, the rain in the jungle between lands and Sisu’s uneven teeth display the depth of thought and artistry that went into every frame of the film. In interviews about the film, the cast and creators have spoken on the importance of the representation and relationships in this film. In its portrayals of female friendships, parental relationships and found families, “Raya and the Last Dragon” goes above and beyond to populate Kumandra with Southeast Asian characters with personalities, lives and connections rarely shown in major Hollywood pictures.
Accompanied by the vibrant and tender “Us Again,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” is well worth the premium price tag ($29.99 on Disney+).