3.5 out 5 stars
In the world of animated filmmaking, one intriguing and exciting element is the opportunity for world-building. This imaginative responsibility must work to cut a fine line between fantasy and a familiar atmosphere for the viewer to come along on the journey. Raya and the Last Dragon exists in a realm that embodies both of these realms in Disney’s latest venture in cinemas.
Kumandra is a fantasy domain where humans and dragons live together in harmony until their world’s are split apart by the evil Druun hoard. This faceless terrorising force turns everything in their path to stone until the day that the dragons sacrifice themselves for the sake of humanity. An act that causes all of their kind to disappear. Except they leave behind a stone that is meant to unify and protect their human benefactors. Unfortunately, as each tribe of mankind tries to control the powerful artifact, it leads to seemingly irreparable divisions that last for over 500 years. Until Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the chief of Kumandra’s Heart Land attempts to bring the tribes back together with the hope of unification of their people. This olive branch offering has all the right purposes. Yet, it is eventually brought to an end when the leaders of the tribes break the dragon stone and divide it between the kingdoms.
This divisive act causes the release of the Druuns on society. Which leads the land to go into a dystopian existence with little hope of reprieve. The only person who attempts to rectify humanity's sad state is the lone warrior and Chief Benja’s only daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). She carries the burden of her father’s dream for unity and the guilt of causing the despair that led to the division. Yet, the one thing that drives her forward on her faithful Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) is the belief that there was one last dragon left that could possibly save them. When she does discover the elusive creature, she must come to terms with an unexpected reality. After discovering the legendary dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), Raya quickly discovers that the creature is a bit less impressive and may not be the hope she had been searching for all these years. Yet, they still begin their quest to find the lost pieces of the Dragon Stone with the desire to save humanity.
As each new Disney animated film is released, it seems a bit redundant to marvel at the continual improvements in this artistic world. Still, this studio's visual mastery continues to be a marvel and adds to this new world's creative development. Even though it has elements taken from an Eastern heritage, most of the tale exists in a fantasy realm that is beautifully complemented by the stunning visuals. By taking the characters through various environments on their quest, the epic of their travels rival many of the past's great cinematic crusades. Kelly Marie Tran’s passionate Raya and the witty, comedic timing of Awkwafina as the legendary dragon do work to bring the buddy road trip feel to this fantasy journey.
With the outstanding animated canvas and a superb cast, Raya and the Last Dragon seems to have all of the earmarks of another Disney classic, despite not being a musical. Yet, even with the new development of this new dominion, most of it has a familiar ring. There are whispers of many Chinese folk tales, Tolkien-esque communal elements and even hints of the great dystopian quests of yesteryear added into the mix. All of these make some aspects of this tale strangely predictable and undermine the story's overall setup. Not that these elements cause distraction in their existence in the film. Still, enough to take this from being a stand-out to being more commonplace within the modern era. This is a beautiful film with a marvellous cast that will leave nothing to surprise and satisfy all who are looking for something fresh in cinemas.
REEL DIALOGUE: A house divided
And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. - Jesus (Mark 3:25)
At the heart of Raya’s quest is the hope for unity and trust between the various tribes. When it comes to countries, businesses, families and even a troupe of adventurers, a division can lead to their downfall. The real enemy of the various factions in this film's land becomes a battle for power due to jealousy of what one group has over another. This classic story vehicle proves that mankind continues to struggle with trust issues.
In our own situations, these cracks can be seen in personal relationships. Some individuals will experience them in the workplace atmosphere, at school, within our families, or with a connection with God. We must fix these things by asking what is causing the division in these relationships and doing all we can to rectify them before it moves beyond repair. Most of us do not have a magic dragon to help, but thankfully we can turn to God to help us. That is why it is essential to care for that relationship and then to our earthly connections with others.