Review: Raya and the Last Dragon Wants You to Have a Little Trust

It’s not entirely clear that Raya and the Last Dragon‘s story issues knowingly mirror its actual plot. But they do. Like its five fantasy lands that have become bitterly divided, Raya threads familiar elements from many obvious influences in a way that only really comes together at the end. There’s a Mulan-like warrior fighting for her father’s honor with the help of a funny dragon, her Kung Fu Panda team of misfits, the Zootopia-style thief who appears as a cute baby, Indiana Jones traps, and a threat that’s basically the Nothing from The Neverending Story.

It’s initially saddled with a video game plot. Go to five different lands and level up each time with a new piece of the magic thing to collect. But once the movie really punches the theme that it’s telegraphed early on — you have to be willing to trust your enemies to make peace with them — it unabashedly works. And (SPOILER)  it also delivers one of the most frightening Disney fake deaths they’ve done in a while.

Warrior princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, finally in a role that deserves her) opens the movie with self-conscious narration pointing out the cliche of her being a lone rider in a post-apocalyptic landscape. And then…does nothing to subvert that. An odd choice, but then it settles into an origin story not unlike the one that kicks off Moana. It’s all about how the land of Kumandra was once saved by dragons from a threat called the Druun.

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The Druun, large cloudy blobs that turn people to stone, subsequently disappeared and had most of their victims restored, save the dragons, who remained statues. A large gem created by the dragons remains, but the five separate lands in once-united Kumandra fight over it. These lands bear the names of dragon body parts like Fang and Tail, but basically break down as Royal Siam, Evil Egyptian Island, Wet Market City, Mongolian Barbarian World, and The Indiana Jones Adventure. In this context, the use of modern-ish kid slang in early scenes is a little jarring.

By the time Raya’s in lone warrior mode, riding her giant armadillo-ish steed Tuk Tuk, who can roll faster than he can run, the gem has broken into five shards. And Raya has learned that one dragon, Sisu, may still be alive at the end of one of Kumandra’s many rivers. Somewhat unexpectedly, she finds Sisu (Awkwafina) in almost no time at all — she’s a blue Asian-style dragon by way of My Little Pony. And unsurprisingly, the most awkward and insecure of her species. But while the obvious archetype here is Eddie Murphy’s Mushu, Sisu isn’t just comic relief. She also functions as the token optimist in what, for Disney, is a pretty depressing world.

Consciously or otherwise, Raya and the Last Dragon addresses national divisions in a way many viewers likely won’t be able to hear. Its proposed solution may seem simplistic, and it does to the characters within the movie as well. Essentially, it comes down to having to love your enemy, and not wait for them to trust first. And that’s a hard enough thing to do even when one has a magic dragon to prove the point, and a common evil cloud enemy.

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As an addition to the princess pantheon, Raya should capture a whole new generation of fans. In keeping with more recent additions Merrida and Moana, she needs no handsome prince. Indeed, older fans will probably “ship” her with arch-enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan) by the time you’re finished reading this. With aspects of Mulan, Lara Croft, and even Milla Jovovich’s Alice from Resident Evil, Raya’s an army unto herself even before she assembles a team. Her only weakness is cynicism. As such, it comes as no shock that she’s arguably the only Disney Princess who doesn’t sing. (Merrida technically counts as Pixar, while The Black Cauldron‘s Eilonwy remains shamefully neglected.)

Is Raya and the Last Dragon worth the extra Disney+ premium upcharge? Not really. There’s nothing here that has to be seen right now. But in a couple months, once it’s part of the regular service, by all means. Derivative micro-mission-based story aside, the world it creates is perhaps the most tactile CG environment Disney has ever done. And while Raya herself arguably embodies the male concept of female empowerment, kicking butt and escaping traps, Sisu is the real deal. She is the living epitome of a more feminine side that Raya has suppressed. Her energy brings a needed counterbalance to everyone else’s war face.

Oh, and if you love baby Yoda/Grogu, you’ll dig baby Noi, who’s a more deliberately thieving version. With a team of three monkey sidekicks.

Indeed, Raya‘s story may not be much, but in the end the characters make it worthwhile.

Grade: 3/5

Raya and the Last Dragon debuts March 5th on Disney+ premiere access, and in theaters where available.

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