Movie review: Raya and the Last Dragon

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Animation by its very limitless nature is always predisposed to taking us to places that enchant and enthrall our imaginations.

In a world that, for all its wonder and expanse, has quite firm parameters on what can and can’t happen, animation offers the chance for filmmakers to go all out and tell stories so vibrantly full and endlessly wonderful simply because absolutely anything is possible.

Raya and the Last Dragon, newly-released in cinemas and on Disney+ for a special rental fee, is one film that makes exuberant use of the genre’s epic possibilities, taking us on a journey to the prosperous land of Kumandra, whose culture and beliefs are an amalgam of several Southeast Asian countries.

Prosperous it may be on the surface, but dig down and the land is split into five fractious nations – Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang and Heart, the final one being the place from where Raya (Kelly Marie Train) our eponymous hero hails, the daughter of Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) who clings to the idea that Kumandra can be whole again.

The reason for the acrimony between Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart, is that Chief Benja, and now Raya, who is as much Tomb Raider capable as she is princess material, are the guardians of an glowing orb full of dragon power which is all that stands between Kumandra’s people and the swirling purple and black evil of the Druun, who exist only to take life and who turns anyone they touch into supplicating statues.

It’s a great evil and has been contained for 500 years thanks to the orb but a series of events, resulting from an inevitable clash between political idealism (Heart) and brutal realpolitik (the other four nations), results in Kumandra once more being plunged into great peril, the only hope of salvation between the last dragon thought to be alive, Sisu (Awkwafina is garrulously extravagant form) and Raya’s trenchant unwillingness to keep searching for her.

That narrative precis suggests a film that has taken all the brilliantly imaginative things animation is capable of and run with to every corner of the dazzling land that is Kumandra, but in truth, Raya and the Last Dragon manages to be even bigger and bigger and more luminously colourful and alive than that the plot suggests.

One of the film’s great strengths is that unlike many other animated films which feel the need to shout their message from any and all high narrative places, Raya and the Last Dragon is content to simply tell its story and let the messaging take care of itself.

Which it does quite nicely, thank you, resulting in a gloriously, colourfully immersive story that tells a tale first and worries about it all means second, meaning the messaging, about trust and community and shared humanity, comes surging very organically out of the film.

All this organic storytelling might not be quite as effective, though it is so cleverly rich and brimming with a thousand wonderful elements at every turn that it would likely have done just fine all on its own, if it were not for characters who are so vividly alive and fully realised that it’s hard not to feel like you have known them all your life.

That’s a truly rare quality in an animated film.

Certainly, many animation efforts have memorable characters who propel their respective stories along quite nicely; but Raya and the Last Dragon goes that bit further, crafting characters who benefit from fine performances, deft use of scintillating inspired dialogue and an unwillingness to simply go from A to B without having a huge amount of gobsmackingly amazingly adventurous fun along the way.

All of which means Raya, Sisu, Namaari (Gemma Chan), Boun (Izaac Wang), Tong (Benedict Wong), Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and even Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a beguiling mix of armadillo and pill bug, who together eventually make up the group who will (hopefully) save Kumandra from the Druun, are vivaciously, three-dimensionally alive and utterly integral to the plot.

They are the furthest thing from cardboard cutout characters and work perfectly in a narrative which while it occupies nearly two hours of running time, never once feels uninspired, listless and full of empty, filler scenes.

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada to a story written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, Raya and the Last Dragon is that rare animated film that feels perfect in all its multitudinously pleasing ways.

That includes the animation which is breathtakingly beautiful beyond belief.

Every one of the five lands is lavishly brought to life, distinctive in their cultural and architectural splendours, the dragons pirouette through the water-soaked skies – the elements are, as you might expect, pivotal to the story and feel freshly-used rather than tired tropes recycled from a thousand other fantasy tales – in rainbow-splendid visions of wonder and everything from the water courses to the mountains to the dystopian desert through we first see Raya travelling, feels like its gorgeously, colourfully larger-than-life and yet very much somewhere people might inhabit.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a film of infinite beauty and wonder but it is also winningly self-deprecatory too, with the film beginning with Raya acknowledging that yes she is a lone rider in an apocalyptic landscape clearly on some sort of grand quest.

So much, so cliched she seems to cheekily admit, right before Raya and the Last Dragon turns around and completely does away with any shred of slavish adherence to the same old, same old, taking some small well-worn fantasy pieces and creating something utterly imaginative and unique, as full of character and narrative as it is delightful to look at and to lose yourself.

Raya and the Last Dragon is headily inspiring, a true tonic for the soul in an age where it is easy to grow protectionist and cynical, encouraging us by showing, not telling, that there is greatness in giving things up without expectation of recompense, wonder in unconditional trust and belonging in the most unlikely of found families, and that whether we are turned to stone or not, that humanity can benefit immeasurably by joining together, perhaps with a little help from magical dragons and a tenacious, lovable, eminently capable heroine, and seeing what beautiful wonders we might yet create.

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