Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Directed by Don Hall & Carlos Lopez Estrada
Written by Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim

I would say that we’re living in a very tumultuous time, and I’d be right, but as a student of history I’m not naïve enough to think that our times are any more tumultuous than any other in our nations past. Certainly there have been some unprecedented things happen over the course of just the previous year. A worldwide pandemic, and insurrection against the government on Capitol Hill. It’s been a strange and concerning year and living through that shines a light on the problems of disunity, disagreement, and violent and hateful spite in the face of those who disagree. Peace and unity seem so very far away, and how sad and depressing a thought that is, especially in such turbulent times. But this story is as old as time. Humans have struggled to trust each other and have the best interest of everybody in mind. So often our pitfalls came from selfishness and greed, a cycle humanity has been in for centuries, millenniums. Whether we’re ever able to break that cycle, who knows. But it’s a goal worth fighting for.

In Kumandra, humans and dragons used to live harmoniously. But then, an evil called the Druun crept in and threatened the land by turning everything it came across into stone. In response, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans, with Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, crafting a dragon stone to help protect them long after the dragons had gone. Flash forward, and the realms of Kumandra have splintered into 5 groups, with Heart being the protectors of the dragon stone. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is initiated as a protector by her father, but soon falls for the deception of Namaari (Gemma Chan), the Fang princess. Soon, the other 4 realms are storming Heart for their piece of the stone, but by splintering the stone and spreading it wide, the Druun has returned to threaten all who do not posses a small piece of the stone. Raya must take it upon herself to explore the legend of Sisu, and unite the people of Kumandra once more to defeat the evil Druun.

I think Raya and the Last Dragon has a lot of things we’ve seen before, and enjoyed before, but that makes it a little less original than some of the other Disney classics we might think of. It’s derivative in many ways of the classics we’ve come to know and love, but honestly, I loved it for that. Strong female lead who finds her voice and power along the way, cute, furry sidekick. It’s also a team up adventure movie where, along the way, Raya gains new friends to help her on her journey. It some ways the story is very gamified as well, which some may knock for being too convenient for potential video game merchandizing, but I love. There is a clear objective: find Sisu, the last dragon, and then seek out and find all the pieces of the dragon stone to defeat the villain. These clear parameters make the story easy to follow, and structure the film in such a way that you really can’t go wrong. The devil is in the details, getting the characters and dynamics right, because the plotting it straightforward and time tested as a winner.

So how do the characters shape up? Very well to be honest. Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya gets a wonderful arch across the story and is an easy hero to root for. She is a little naïve, falling for Namaari’s tricks as a child, and while she learns from that mistake, she still sees the best in people and is a wholesome hero as a result. We also gain Sisu, wonderfully voiced by Awkwafina in her daffy way. Add in the aforementioned cute furry sidekick, Tuk Tuk, along with team members from each of the realms: Boun (Izaac Wang), a boy chef wonder from Tail, a baby con artist from Talon (yes, a baby con artist), and the lone remaining human from Spine, the chief. It’s a mix-matched bunch, but they come together in amazing ways, shaping the team to unite the realms once more under Sisu and the dragon stone. It really is a fun adventure.

In the end, I think the message really hits home too. It may be obvious, and wrapped around a packaged story we’ve seen in different iterations before, but the filmmaking team really crafts strong, likable characters that I fully got behind and was enveloped in their adventure and stakes. To see the people of Kumandra tear each other apart out of greed, selfishness and a full lack of trust is really telling and I think brought a lot of thoughts to mind in our current time and place. It’s a fend for yourself world we live in where billionaires profited obscene amounts during a time where world health was threatened and millions lost their jobs and livelihoods. I don’t often like to get political, but the simple message of Raya and the Last Dragon is to trust one another, have each other’s back, stand up when something is wrong, even if it doesn’t seem to directly affect us personally because in the end, it all affects us, whether we want it to or not.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Us Again

Written & Directed by Zach Parrish

As tradition with Disney and Pixar movies, there is a short that plays before Raya and the Last Dragon called Us Again. This is a very short film, and like many of the other Disney shorts, features no dialogue. But like many of Disney’s other shorts, it doesn’t need dialogue either, as it communicates a very cute and wonderful story just by the music and movement of its images. This short follows an old couple, the man resigned to sitting in his chair day in and day out, with the glory days well behind him. He’s grumpy and sad, while his wife is vibrant and happy, wanting to dance like they used to. After refusing, the man is left inside the apartment, while his wife goes out in the city. But when he ventures onto the balcony, he discovers that rain turns him young again, and he is exuberant in his refound passion for jazz and movement. But he becomes a prisoner to the rain, chasing it all the way to the ocean in hopes of never turning old again.

It’s a really cute story between an old, bi-racial couple (kudos Disney for showing diversity in your films, on top of the main feature Raya being a seemingly Asian story). The images are bright and match well with the vibrancy of the jazz music score which propels the characters dancing. In just a short time, with no dialogue, we learn so much about what this couple used to be, and how much they still love each other today, just needing to break free from their monotony and depression of old age. It really connected with me, as I have a grandpa who is always dancing! He lives to move and just live life! It’s amazing to see, as he is set to turn 97 later this year and is still out there moving. Such a verve for life is infectious and a joy to watch in old people. Always live life to the fullest and love each other. We only have so much time here, and it’s a lot more fun to spend it dancing than moping.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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