VOD film review: Raya and the Last Dragon
Ivan Radford | On 05, Mar 2021
Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran
Where to watch Raya and the Last Dragon online in the UK: Disney+ / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
“The world’s broken, you can’t trust anyone,” declares Raya (a brilliant Kelly Marie Tran) in Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s new fantasy epic. The gorgeously composed adventure whisks us away to a far-off kingdom, while reminding us that, no matter where we’re from, what unites us is stronger than what divides.
It’s a particularly timely message, and one that resonates even more as the film features the House of Mouse’s first Southeast Asian Disney Princess. Standing confidently alongside Mulan, Elsa and Moana, Raya is a warrior, a daughter, a dreamer and a determined force for change – taking inspiration from her father (Daniel Dae Kim), who tells her that “someone has to take the first step”, she heads out into the divided world of Kumandra to track down the last dragon in existence. (The others died years ago to save humanity, after squabbling between Kumandra’s rival clans led to the magical dragon gem being destroyed, leaving the world unprotected against the dark force known as the Druun.)
Along the way, Raya assembles a ragtag bunch of fighters, including the giant Tong (Benedict Wong), clever kid Boun (Izaac Wang) and wickedly funny con-baby Little Noi (Thalia Tran) – what Tong charmingly labels a “fellowship of butt-kickery”. While their chemistry is entertaining, and their co-ordinated action exciting, the main source of comedy is the always-excellent Awkwafina, who voices the titular last dragon, Sisu, a creature as self-deprecating as she is supernaturally powerful.
The artwork in every frame of the film is stunning to behold, from lantern-lit towns and peaceful countryside to the gently glowing Sisu, not to mention the jaw-dropping depiction of the Druun, which move like wriggling black holes that spew out purple smoke. For all the visual invention and sumptuous use of colours, though, the real thrill comes from watching Raya, with her twisting, snapping sword, go toe to toe with her nemesis, Princess Namaari (a wonderfully fierce Gemma Chan – matched by a formidable Sandra Oh as her mother).
After a glimpse of what they could be like as friends, the script – by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen – pits the two young women against each other, and their shifting, complex relationship is superbly observed. It’s the kind of hero-villain dynamic that is promised by many blockbusters, but rarely delivered. Their showdowns recall the intense intimacy of Prince of Egypt’s estranged brothers, and get added emotional stakes from the fact the movie is more concerned with their bond than introducing any kind of romantic interest.
All this makes for a Disney movie that feels fresh and different, closer to Studio Ghibli in its mood and spectacle than Pixar. And yet, while the casting and Southeast Asian cultural influences are a welcome step towards diversifying how we define a “Disney Princess” – Raya wields a blade inspired by the Indonesian kris sword and harbours a passion for Vietnamese soup – Raya and the Last Dragon also sticks to convention in other departments, from an early family tragedy to, yes, the fast-talking animal sidekick. It’s also been pointed out by some fans that the cast is mostly East Asian, rather than Southeast Asian.
You’ll guess immediately where things are headed, then, but there’s a poignant message at the movie’s heart – one of teamwork, trust and not making assumptions about others – that gives it some heft. The more Raya and the Last Dragon boils down to the bond between its two antagonists, the more distinct it becomes. Someone has to take the first step, Raya’s dad tells her – it’s just a slight disappointment that Raya and the Last Dragon didn’t take a few more.
Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ as part of a regular £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.