RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (Movie Review)

STAR-RATING: 3.5 out of 4 stars. Rated PG. This original adventure myth transcends Princess conventions with well-staged thrills, emotional pathos, and a timely metaphor.

***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG
(for some violence, action, and some thematic elements)
Released: March 5, 2021, in theaters and 
on Disney Plus (with $30 Premier Access)
Runtime: 107 minutes (114 minutes with animated short “Us Again”)
Directed by: Don Hall,
Carlos López Estrada
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran

Playing in theaters and on Disney Plus (with $30 Premier Access)

The values, ideals, and courageous aspirations of Raya and the Last Dragon are the exact opposite of whatever the godforsaken spirit of Twitter is.

Crafting a Twitter parable was, almost certainly, the furthest thing from Disney’s collective mind when they made Raya and the Last Dragon, but that’s exactly what it is.

Excuse me while I bury the lede about what a thrilling animated adventure this is – one that defies “Princess” conventions (there’s no Prince Charming romance here) by simply, and thankfully, ignoring them rather than satirizing or subverting them – but I’ll get back to that once I’ve worked out this Twitter metaphor, one that makes Raya particularly relevant, even powerful.

If people primarily exist on Twitter (and, to a larger extent, social media) to uncritically affirm their own tribe(s) while spewing hatred, contempt, fear, and zero grace for the ones they oppose, then Raya dares us – and I mean truly dares us – to do better and be better in the real world.

That notion may seem conventional but, well, have you been on Twitter lately? It’s not just the toxic fans and basement dwellers that resort to bully tactics; even (allegedly) intelligent people from the most elite spheres of culture and society gleefully employ “hot take” takedowns – like sadists with a blow torch.

So what does that have to do with a Disney Princess movie?

Here’s the premise: the ancient, Asian realm of Kumandra has been broken for 500 years. A nation whose boundaries form the shape of a dragon, its five divided lands represent key parts of that mythic creature: Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail. These divisions are the result of a plague called the Druun, a mystical, vicious black cloud that turns everyone it touches to stone.

As the film’s prologue unpacks, a legion of benevolent dragons fought the Druun, but all perished. Only the last surviving one – named Sisu – was able to defeat and banish the vicious monster through the power of a Dragon Gem. The Druun was gone, Sisu disappeared, and the Gem remained. Now, the five clans remain as divided as ever, four of them vengeful and jealous of Heart, the most prosperous and privileged of the clans that holds sole possession of the gem.

To put a fine point on it: Druun is Twitter, and the five tribes attack each other without a moment’s pause for their shared nationality (let alone humanity).

Indeed, even as the various clans recognize the Druun’s destructive power, they continue to blame “other tribes” for why divisions remain and escalate. All except Heart and its leader Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, TV’s Lost). He seeks to unite Kumandra once again. Inevitably, though, due to well-plotted details and exhilarating sequences I won’t spoil, much of these lands become a dystopian hellscape (again, Twitter!).

It then falls to Benja’s daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, The Last Jedi, confident and assured) to fulfill his dream. In doing so, she seeks to summon Sisu – the last dragon (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians, whose brash, comic, scratchy-voice has a Miley Cyrus energy, but one that’s pure, without the crass, sassy, defiant edge).

The film’s surface parallels of the United States and its irreconcilable politics are the most obvious ones, and certainly the most intentional. But the true villain of this world isn’t a person or a people; it’s an amorphous “platform”. In Kumandra, the Druun is the evil of their age.

The analogous leap to Twitter, then, is direct, and it actually serves as an incisive foundation for thinking about this original (and thoughtfully imagined) mythos, not only its narrative and character constructs but also its themes, ideas, and moral challenges.

To reunite the clans, it will require more of Raya and Sisu – and their motley crew of adorable misfits – than to win a series of spectacular battles (spectacular though they are, inventively staged and vibrantly imagined across the five lands, all within distinct geographies and cultures, and set against epic backdrops). It will also require the courage to trust, which – as is so poignantly dramatized here – can be the most courageous act of all, especially when trust has been irrevocably breached and destroyed. It’s a victory that can only be claimed through humility, born of a willingness to offer the ultimate sacrifice: one’s self.

The third act of this parable truly resonates, much more than I was expecting. Whenever the writers finally cracked the climax for this journey – one that involves more complex choices than simply having a young heroine and her magical dragon save the day – Disney’s Story Team must’ve been absolutely thrilled, even moved. I know I was.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a call for unity in a deeply polarized time, and land. It believes in people, in a humanity that transcends our most corrosive tensions and divisions. It’s a moving and timely fable, one that asks us to believe in each other once again. To live out that belief, we must be the first to summon the necessary courage.

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  • Important Note: Us Again, the new 6-minute animated dance short that plays before Raya and the Last Dragon, is a theatrical exclusive and not available as part of the Disney Plus Premier Access purchase. It’s worth the trip to the multiplex, too, not only for its Broadway level choreography and color-popping animation but, more importantly, it has the most emotionally rewarding arc of wordless storytelling since the opening of Pixar’s Up. No, it doesn’t trigger the same waterworks, but it definitely beats with the same sentimental heart. If you’re sitting next to the one you love, don’t be surprised if you find yourselves sneaking a quick kiss when its through.

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