Meet Raya (voiced by “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” breakout Kelly Marie Tran), Disney’s latest strong and independent female animation character following the trend of “Tangled,” “Frozen,” and “Moana.” She is also the Studio’s first Southeast Asian princess/warrior from the imaginary Southeast Asian land of Kumandra.
Co-directed by Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), and co-written by Adele Lim (“Crazy Rich Asians”) and Vietnamese-American writer Qui Nguyen, “Raya and the Last Dragon” hops us on a thrilling, entertaining ride. Watching the film is like taking an exciting adventure with Raya and her companies including a caption of a floating restaurant Boun (Izaac Wang), a terrifying-looking yet warm-hearted soldier Tong (Benedict Wong), and an adorable scam baby (Thalia Tran) with her army of monkeys. Plus, a giant pill bug sidekick Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk…what?!). It is an amusing, rich, and surprisingly thought-provoking story about the power of acceptance and trust. The visual arresting landscape of Kumandra is so complex and diverse that it feels like a real place, giving each location in Raya’s journey an epic and unique look.
We first meet Raya on a mission to save people from being turned to stone, most important, her dad Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) who had a big dream of bringing separated nations back together peacefully. The mission is not only to turn people back to life but also to fulfill her dad’s vision of reuniting humankind. To do so, she needs to gather the fragments of a magical stone for a legendary dragon Sisu. Here, Awkwafina’s fantastic voice work for Sisu is the film’s standout despite the excellent ensemble. This is one of the best, awkwardly funny animated voice acting I’ve ever heard after the great Robin Williams’ Genie in “Aladdin.” Her expression is strong and vivid, achieving a perfect balance between cartoonish and deep emotion.
Raya’s biggest rival, at least she thinks, is Namaari (Gemma Chan, the film’s third “Crazy Rich Asians” alumni), also a princess/warrior whose chasing after her by riding a gigantic cat with her troops. However, in the end, Raya has to fight against her own sorrow and prejudice to find peace for herself and the world.
The theme of “Raya and the Last Dragon” gets clear gradually, and the context that calls for unity is timely during the current politically polarized environment. It’s a smart family animation that delivers the challenging message of finding peace after division. Like Pixar’s groundbreaking works, Disney now also finds its courage to tell children a complex story that Hollywood blockbuster animations tend not to. Children can enjoy the adventure all along, but the film will likely help them start to reflect on the true meaning of trust and generosity. What makes people divided? Why people treat “enemies” with fear and hatred?
Not being chosen by fate or magic, Raya could have been a young princess that lives an ordinary life and waits for a hero or a prince to save the day. But “Raya and the Last Dragon” is not that kind of film. She has to be strong just because her world is threatened by an evil force caused by humans’ greedy nature. The princess warrior is already a kick-ass heroine when we first meet them, yet she also has to learn how to treat people with kindness and forgive the enemies she was told so. What a beautiful lesson for the young audience, and most important, for adults.
- Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and Disney+
- Production: Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures
- Director: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
- Writer: Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim
- Producer: Peter Del Vecho and Osnat Shurer
- Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and Alan Tudyk
- “Raya and the Last Dragon” released in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on Mar. 5, 2021
Read the review in Chinese