‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ review: Pixar’s latest proves the importance of representation

  • ‘Star Wars’ actress Kelly Marie Tran and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ star Awkwafina star in this Southeast Asian-inspired Disney film
  • Like ‘Moana’ before it, this is a tale of an empowered young woman – with some hilarious moments and stunning animation
Associated Press |

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Raya seeks the help of the legendary dragon, Sisu. But is magic really the answer? Photo: Disney

Living up to expectations and beyond, Pixar’s Raya and the Last Dragon is an epic and sassy fantasy adventure, featuring an eccentric magical creature and a Disney princess you really wouldn’t want to mess with in a fight.

Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), the animated movie is a Southeast Asian-inspired melding of magic, comedy, some goofiness, strange animals and butt-whupping warrior women.

With Kelly Marie Tran voicing the sharp-tongued title character and Awkwafina amazingly inhabiting an adorably oddball water dragon, the film wrestles with tonal inconsistencies, but features fantastic action scenes to go with a touching underlying narrative about the power of trust.

Raya is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where 500 years have passed since the harmonious coexistence of humans and dragons was tragically disrupted by the Druun, a mysterious race of purple globs with black smoke that turn living things into statues.

The last of those dragons, Sisu (Awkwafina), was able to use a magical gem to save the day but then disappeared, and in the aftermath the humans broke into warring kingdoms.

When we first meet Raya (Tran), princess of Heart – one of the disparate lands named after dragon parts – she is a young girl who’s become a new guardian of the dragon gem. Her idealistic father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) yearns to unites the factions.

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But what’s meant to be a diplomatic reunion ends up creating even more of a divide, the gem is broken and an attack by the resurrected Druun turns Benja and hundreds of others into stone figures.

Six years later, Raya’s a stoic, untrusting nomad travelling with her roly-poly best friend/transport Tuk Tuk – part armadillo, part dog, part bug, all cute – to find Sisu, find all the pieces of the gem and save her dad.

Once found, Sisu admits to Raya that she’s not the greatest dragon (“I’m a really strong swimmer!” she joyfully insists) yet agrees to help Raya in her quest.

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Their travelling party becomes a motley heroic crew, picking up a 10-year-old shrimp boat captain (Izaac Wang), a toddler con artist, and a gruff lonely dude (Benedict Wong). They encounter various obstacles, including Namaari (an oddly American-accented Gemma Chan), Raya’s dangerous arch enemy from the Fang clan.

The movie shares a lot of its best aspects with fellow Disney cartoon Moana, especially when it comes to comedy and its central empowering journey. And because it’s not based on anything, the film sometimes feels remarkably original, although there are plenty of familiar fantasy themes and the occasional Indiana Jones or Star Wars nod.

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The artwork is stunning. Each kingdom has its own individual charm, and you’ll recognise elements from real Southeast Asian countries: Fang features a bunch of classical-type structures built along water, while Talon has a bustling street-market vibe. Details such as bristling grasses and water dripping off fur really add to the effect. And the region’s influence is seen throughout Raya, from the locales to gorgeously rendered flying dragons.

Then there’s the amazing fight sequences. Raya’s sticks come from the Philippines’ martial art, Escrima, while Namaari’s fighting style is based on Muay Thai kick boxing. The combo leads to battles that are more intense and vicious than expected from Disney (in a good way).

The scuffles are pretty serious, as is the genocidal presence of the Druun, which Sisu describes as “a plague born of human discord”. On the other hand, Raya has farting bugs whose toots explode. However, the film’s goofiness entertains more than it distracts.

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Tran at least gets a lot to say here – and a decent part – to make up for being underused in the last Star Wars movie. She nicely navigates the character’s lighter and darker sides, though her voice works a lot better for older Raya than her younger self.

The casting of Awkwafina as Sisu, though, is absolute perfection. She’s hilarious giving life to the character’s self-deprecating manner, in both dragon and human form, and also sells Sisu’s evolution from weak link to wise, confident heroine.

Watching her skip through the sky using her magic is as enjoyable as seeing Raya mosey into one of her thrilling, two-fisted, sword-swinging altercations. Together, they make Last Dragon a neat new entry to the fantasy-movie canon.

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