Raya and the Last Dragon – movie review

Trust is in short supply in the Disney animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon. That’s because 500 years ago, sinister monsters known as the Druun turned most of the people and the dragons (who until then had lived in harmony) to stone. But the collective energies and special powers of five dragon siblings saved the day. When it was all over, only the spirit of the most powerful of all of them – Sisu (the voice of Awkwafina) – remained, in the form of a blue ball of energy.

The ball is diligently guarded by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the kind-hearted ruler of Heart Land. But the leaders of the other four lands – Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail – believe the energy ball has special properties.  They maintain Heart Land enjoys the spoils they do not. Chief Benja wants to bring the warring lands together and so calls a peace summit, but the other lands are suspicious. The chief extends the olive branch. His feisty and curious daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) follows his lead. With a large number of representatives of all lands gathered in front of them, she asks whether any are hungry.

Namaari (Gemma Chan), the warrior princess of the Fang Land, steps forward and the pair forge an immediate bond. However, if truth be told, Namaari has another agenda and she has tricked Raya into believing they are on the same page. Before long, as all five lands try to seize the orb, it lies broken in pieces and, once again, the Druun are circling, sensing the end of mankind is near. In the tussle, Chief Benja is seriously wounded and turned to stone, leaving it to Raya to help save the day.

With the help of her best friend and trusty mode of transport, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) – a mix between an armadillo and a pill bug – Raya journeys for six long years to try to bring the scattered pieces of the energy ball together. Along the way, she manages to awaken the powerful and goofy young water dragon Sisu, who can transform into a human, and is the last of her kind in existence. Also on Raya’s side are a number of other disparate and colourful characters, including a toddler con artist, a 10-year-old entrepreneur (Izaak Wang) and a formidable giant (Benedict Wong). But before this is over, Raya will lock swords again with her arch nemesis, Namaari.

Raya and the Last Dragon is pleasant, if largely predictable, fare. The film follows a proven formula and is clearly aimed at children. Like so many movies before it, Raya has to travel through a number of “lands” and deal with various obstacles before the final act. So, the movie is all about the challenges … and I am afraid I was counting them down. Overall, I would have liked more surprises.

Raya is handed the mantle much like Simba was by his father Mufasa in The Lion King. Raya and the Last Dragon features heroic and defiant characters, as well as those that are devious. The evil Druun are presented as rolling, large “dust storms” with a pinkish centre. Laughs are an important ingredient, along with the quirky. The armadillo spin-off and toddler and her monkey mates do the trick, not to forget a number of choice lines from the well-meaning light blue dragon.

Still, I am afraid the humour doesn’t translate to adults as well as the best of breed Disney films, starting with Aladdin in 1992. This is where “the art” of double entendres can separate the finest from the average. Still, Raya and the Last Dragon provides colour and adventure, while delivering a few life lessons. Youngsters will appreciate it.

Alex First

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