The world is broken and the only way it can be fixed is if we learn to start trusting each other again. While the world in question is the once prosperous realm of Kumandra in Walt Disney Animation Studio’s latest feature Raya and the Last Dragon, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are not shy about their commentary on the divided times we live in. If trust is the nail that is needed to stabilize the bridge of unity, then the film ensures it is hammered deep into the wood.
The reluctant hammer in the film is Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the princess of the Heart Land region of Kumandra. Once a prosperous land where humans and dragons co-existed in harmony, Kumandra was ravished by a plague known as the Druun. Sacrificing themselves to defeat this threat, the dragons left behind a magical gem to ensure the safety of mankind. However, in the 500 years since those events, Kumandra is a shell of its former self.
Bestowed as protectors of the sacred Dragon Gem, the Heart Land has drawn the jealous eyes of the other regions (Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang) that once comprised Kumandra. Wanting to change their false misconceptions and quell the sense of resentment that has divide them, Raya’s father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) invites all the heads of each region to his home to break bread in hopes of healing longstanding open wounds. While the other region heads are skeptical of Chief Benja’s generosity, Raya finds an instant sense of kinship with Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess of the Fang Land. Trusting in her newfound friendship, Raya’s moment of kindness unexpectedly opens the door to betrayal as it becomes apparent that Namaari and her mother, Fang Land Chieftess Virana (Sandra Oh), were plotting to steal the Dragon Gem all along.
After a scuffle involving amongst the various leaders ensues, the Dragon Gem is shattered into five pieces paving the way for the Druun’s return. With the Druun rapidly turning people to stone, Raya sets out with her pet pill bug Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) to locate both the gem pieces and a dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) who is rumored to be the last dragon in existence who can set the world right again.
Set in a dystopian land, Raya and the Last Dragon plays more like Indiana Jones than it does Mad Max. As Raya travels to the various regions, she must navigate new foes and elaborate traps. With each new location she inevitable meets people, including con artist toddler Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and warrior with a heart of gold Tong (Benedict Wong), who will join Raya on her quest.
It is not hard to see that the ragtag team of loveable scoundrels that Raya ends up assembling are literally the forgotten people. They are the ones left behind by a world that has changed due to events out of their control. This not-so-subtle allegory of our fractured society would have resonated more had the film practiced what it preaches. For a film that continuously emphasizes the importance of “trusting” those who may have different perspectives than us, Raya and the Last Dragon rarely displays trust in the viewer ability to pick up the symbolism.
The constant reinforcing of the messaging will no doubt lead to several eye rolls throughout. Fortunately, what the film lacks in subtly it makes up for in its action and overall visual splendor. Raya and the Last Dragon is a thrilling action-packed adventure that will entertain all ages. Filled with fun set pieces that pops off the screen, the martial arts inspired action works well with the family friendly comedic beats. It also helps that Hall and López Estrada construct a film that is visually stunning to look at. Everything from the subtle details in the various environments Raya visits to the movements in the fight scenes are beautifully rendered.
While lacking in subtly, there is plenty of action and humour to make Raya and the Last Dragon a worthy edition to Disney’s illustrious animated canon.