Synopsis: A teen searches for a dragon and the chance to restore peace in her world. (Animated. Streaming on Disney+)
Interest in virtually any movie can be heightened by the inclusion of dragons. Disney knows this. Hence, Sleeping Beauty (although Maleficent’s humanoid form is scarier than her dragon form), Pete’s Dragon (pretty dull movie with just Pete), Mulan (featuring Mushu, a tiny comic relief dragon) and now, in Raya and the Last Dragon, Sisu. Sisu is a midsized, pastel-hued, feathery-furred dragon who is very likable. She’s voiced to good comic effect by Awkwafina aka, Nora Lum.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the fictional land of Kumandra (modeled after South East Asia) where humans once lived in harmony with dragons. But the Druun appeared, sort of airborne oil slicks, that turn living creatures to stone. Somehow the dragons use their energy to create a special gemstone and then use the last of their combined energy to defeat the Druun.
I can just imagine some poor four-year- old concentrating hard to understand what a room of Disney writers have wrought. Later the poor kid will have to concentrate even harder to absorb that that the peoples of Kumandra get greedy, fight over a broken gemstone and remain estranged from each other. Pay attention kid, because the tribes are named after the parts of a dragon (Fang, Talon, Tail, Spine and Heartland). From outer space you would be able to see that, when the lands are united, they form a dragon. It’s like Christopher Nolan and James Cameron came up with the first fifteen minutes of the movie.
All that you and your child need to know is that Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has set out to find the broken parts of the gemstone after a cataclysmic event: the return of the Druun. The Druun effectively exert a Marvel-type Snappening and turn much of the population into stone, making for whole villages full of statuary. In a rando detail, the Druun don’t like water. (The storyboarders probably threw that in at the end of a long day. It might come in handy later in the movie. Let’s get out of here!)
Raya is determined, resourceful and skilled at fighting. When she was a child in Heartland, her father resourced her as child labor, training her to be a security guard for the gemstone. Now, several years later she searches each land for the gemstone pieces that she hopes will drive out the Druuns and/or summon the Last Dragon. Raya rides on an SUV-sized creature, Tuk Tuk, who looks like an armadillo. For some reason they are willing to roll themselves into a wheel and carry Raya hither and yon.
Meanwhile some badass girl from another tribe, Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan) is after Raya and the gemstone pieces. Namaari has a cool undercut and supercut bod. She likes to fight and scowl. When she and Raya run into each other they talk trash and do martial arts. Some people are sensing erotic energy and shipping them. Lots of fan art, if you’re interested.
Namaari and her troops ride big cats. Now, I am willing to believe in dragons, but it beggars belief that any cat would allow a person to ride them. Even “domesticated” house cats would scratch their person to ribbons for merely suggesting they let their person gingerly place a little flower crown atop their head for two seconds.
Sisu the dragon appears and enlivens the proceedings with gentle wisecracks and good intentions that go awry. Along the way, Raya invites along other survivors and they form a ragtag team: a tricksy baby and their snow monkey-esque pals, a nearly-giant lonely man and a boy who operates a fast food joint from his (stone) family’s boat.
One of Raya’s strongest points is its animation: rich landscapes and finely-hewn facial expressions. Much appreciated in light of a less-than-stellar narrative. Speaking of which, Disney has made what seems to be a permanent shift away from singing princesses/aspiring monarchy members to fighting girls. Way to co-opt use of violence from the patriarchy, Disney. Fortunately, there is a shift away from violence to diplomacy at the end of the movie.
Since this is a 21st Century Disney flick, the producers are sure to include what they hope is a meaningful substrate. This time around, the theme is TRUST. So, at the end of the movie you can say to your preschooler: It looks like they learned to trust each other and work together. And your kid will say: Yeah….I like the dragon! Me too.
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: Beautiful animation & a great dragon. Not great storytelling, but let your kids see the movie; I bet there will be parts that they really like.
Humor Highlight: Awkwafina as Sisu the Last Dragon.