RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON: 3 ½ STARS. “animation will make your eye balls dance.”
If you look on IMDb, there are dozens of titles containing the phrase “dragon slayer.” Movie dragons, by and large have been of the Smaug variety, a beast “The Hobbit” author J.R.R. Tolkien described as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.”
There are exceptions of course, like the “How to Train Your Dragon” creatures and the wyvern in “The Reluctant Dragon” who would rather recite poetry than cause havoc. “You’ve got to be mad to breathe fire,” he says, “but I’m not mad at anybody.”
This week we can add Sisu the self-deprecating water dragon voiced by Awkwafina in Disney+’s animated “Raya and the Last Dragon,” to the happy dragon list
Five hundred years ago humans and dragons happily co-existed in the Five Lands of Kumandra—Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail—the fantasy land (inspired by several Southeast Asian cultures) Warrior Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), Guardian of the Dragon Gem, calls home.
The dragons were fierce warriors, the only creatures capable of defeating the Druun, the nasty neighbors who turn everything they touch into stone. To save humanity Sisu the dragon imbued a gem with magic powerful enough to drive away the interlopers and bring the folks who had been turned into pillars back to life. With the work done, Sisu disappeared, leaving behind the gem and a deeply divided nation.
In an effort to bring the warring tribes together Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), head of the Heart Tribe, leaves the gem vulnerable and soon it is smashed, split into pieces, leaving the land open to further attacks from the Druun.
If the Druun are to be defeated once and for all Raya must track down the last dragon. That would be Sisu, a quirky pink and turquoise dragon with self-esteem issues. “I’m going to be real with you,” she says. “I’m not like the best dragon. Have you ever done like a group project, but there’s like that one kid who didn’t pitch in as much, but still ended up with the same grade?”
Disney’s first original princess movie since 2016’s “Moana,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a feast for the eyes. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, with particular attention paid to the details that differentiate the five clans. The animation will make your eye balls dance, and perhaps leave you wishing this could be the big screen experience it was originally meant to be.
The clever backgrounds are populated with nicely realized characters. As Raya, Kelly Marie Tran plays the first Disney princess who is as good with her fists as she is with her wits. The combat scenes, including a fistfight with Fang Tribe meanie Namaari (Gemma Chan), sword fights and chases, are well presented, always allowing for the viewer to follow the action and not get lost in a blur of glinting swords or flying fists. In a film populated with lots of secondary characters, she holds her own with determination and a heap of spunk.
Awkwafina has more to work with character wise. As the quirky dragon she’s a scene stealer, bring humour and heart to Sisu. The movie wants you to root for her and you will.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is meant for kids, so the main character’s journey isn’t overly complicated, but it does contain poignant, joyful messages of the importance of togetherness and trust. In an increasingly divided world comes a movie that promotes trust as a key to human relationships. Disney isn’t blazing new ground with the moral, but it’s not such a bad thing to be reminded of from time to time.