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'Raya And The Last Dragon' Is Not Entirely New, But It's Refreshing Nonetheless

Raya, a young warrior princess (Kelly Marie Tran), enlists the help of Sisu, a friendly water dragon (Awkwafina) in <em>Raya and the Last Dragon. </em>
Raya, a young warrior princess (Kelly Marie Tran), enlists the help of Sisu, a friendly water dragon (Awkwafina) in Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, but like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.

The movie, directed by the Disney veteran Don Hall and the animation newcomer Carlos López Estrada, brings us into a fantasy world that's been beautifully visualized and populated with engaging characters, and it builds to an emotional climax that I'm still thinking about days later.

The story is a little complicated, as these stories tend to be. It takes place in Kumandra, an enchanted realm inspired by various Southeast Asian cultures and divided into five kingdoms named after a dragon's body parts: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.

Before they became extinct centuries ago, dragons once roamed the land and served as friendly guardians to humanity. Their magic lives on in a jewel called the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a cave in Heart, but the other four kingdoms covet its mighty powers. One day, all five factions come together and try to reach a peace agreement, but tensions erupt, a fight breaks out and the Gem shatters into five pieces that are scattered across Kumandra. This opens the doorway to an ancient enemy called the Druun, a terrible plague that turns people to stone.

Naturally, a hero must rise and save the day. Her name is Raya, and she's a young warrior princess from Heart, voiced by the excellent Kelly Marie Tran from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Raya manages to escape the Druun, though her father, her ba, who's the leader of Heart, isn't so lucky. Now Raya must recover the pieces of the Dragon Gem, reverse the damage and banish the Druun for good.

This isn't the first time we've seen a brave young character embark on a quest for magical baubles, and Raya and the Last Dragon is rooted in traditional fantasy lore, with The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones being just the most obvious influences. The movie's intense scenes of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat give it a tougher, more grown-up feel than most Disney animated fantasies — my own young daughter had to cover her eyes a few times. Like some other recent Disney princesses, including Moanaand Elsa, Raya has a bold, adventurous streak and isn't all that interested in romance. Unlike them, she doesn't even have time to sing a song.

That said, the movie still has plenty of lightness and humor. The screenwriters, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, have provided the usual Disney array of cute critters and lively supporting characters. None of them is more colorful than Sisu, a friendly water dragon who is magically resurrected during Raya's journey. She's the last of her kind, and she has a crucial role to play in the story. She's voiced delightfully by Awkwafina, doing one of her signature chatterbox comedy routines and selling every one of Sisu's anachronistic wisecracks.

Raya and Sisu's journey takes them to all five kingdoms of Kumandra, all of which are so vivid and transporting I found myself wishing they really existed — or that I could have at least seen them on a proper movie screen. There's the town of Talon, which is built at the edge of a river, and the desert wasteland of Tail, where Raya and Sisu must enter a cave of obstacles straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure.

As the two of them search for more Dragon Gem pieces, they of course pick up a few friends along the way. There's a street-smart boy who cooks a mean shrimp congee and a toddler pickpocket whom I found more creepy than cute. But the movie's most intriguing character is Namaari, a rival princess from Fang who's voiced by Gemma Chan. (As a side note, Chan and Awkwafina both appeared in Crazy Rich Asians, which, like this movie, was co-written by Lim.) Namaari and Raya used to be friends until the fight over the Dragon Gem ripped them apart. Now they're bitter enemies, and their emotional dynamic is fierce and complicated in ways that relationships are rarely allowed to be in children's animated films, especially between women.

The emotional power of 'Raya and the Last Dragon' sneaks up on you. Its lessons aren't new, exactly, but it makes you feel like you're learning them for the first time.

By contrast, Sisu is all feel-good vibes; she's a dragon, after all, with little understanding of how treacherous humans can be. She doesn't get why Raya and Namaari distrust each other so, why they can't just set their differences aside and defeat the Druun together. It's Sisu's sincerity and purity of heart that makes the story's finale so unexpectedly stirring, especially now. Our fates are closely bound together, it reminds us, as it builds a case for forgiveness, reconciliation and mutual sacrifice.

The emotional power of Raya and the Last Dragon sneaks up on you. Its lessons aren't new, exactly, but it makes you feel like you're learning them for the first time.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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