Review: RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a Grim, Gorgeous Masterpiece

There has never been a Disney animated feature film like Raya and the Last Dragon.

From the opulence of its devastated, Southeast Asian-influenced, fantasy setting to its pulse-pounding action to the quite frankly astonishing degree of melancholy and sorrow that suffuses every frame of the film, Raya and the Last Dragon gives you not only the not-insubstantial thrill of quality, but the electrifying delight of the new. Even in the places where you can feel the film utilizing the tried-and-true tricks of Disney films and heroes’ journeys past, Raya and the Last Dragon makes each and every moment its own.

The result is a masterpiece of modern animation that left me speechless when the credits started rolling.

Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting[?!]) Raya and the Last Dragon opens in a world on its last legs. Centuries ago, we are told, humans lived in harmony with each other and with the mystical dragons who spread magic and life wherever they went. When an invasive force of darkness took root in the land, transforming any living thing it touched to stone, the dragons sacrificed themselves to banish the invasion and save the world, leaving behind only a gem that sealed the evil away.

Rather than being bonded closer together by this sacrifice, the humans split into warring tribes forever seeking to dominate one another. Young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) believes she is training to serve as guardian of the gem in order to support her kingdom in the event of invasion. But her father (Daniel Dae Kim) dreams of uniting the fractured nations of Tail, Talon, Spine, Fang, and Heart into a single country again.

To that end, he invites the leaders of the rival kingdoms to Heart for a peaceful conclave. Raya attempts to live up to her father’s dream by forming a bond with Namaari (Gemma Chan), the princess of the Fang kingdom.

But betrayal shatters the peace, and in the squabbling and chaos, the all-important gem is shattered as well, unleashing the ancient evil upon the world again and leaving Raya heartbroken and alone. And this time, there are no dragons to save the day.

Raya and the Last Dragon takes its time laying out the pieces of its world and mythology with a lengthy prologue so that by the time the film picks up properly years later with Raya (and her giant bug/armadillo friend/ride [the latest in a line of ‘Wait, Alan Tudyk voiced WHAT?’ roles]) desperately trying to find a way to awaken the legendary dragon Sisu so that she might put the world back in order, we understand both the driving need pushing Raya to the ends of the earth, and the bitter anger that keeps her removed from the rest of the human race.

Once that set-up is out of the way, Raya and the Last Dragon starts ripping through plot. In very short order, Sisu is revived (and voiced by Awkwafina), she and Raya have hatched a plan to collect the missing gemstone pieces, and an older, hostile Namaari is hot on their trail.

Despite Raya’s (well-earned) distrust of all human beings, her and Sisu’s journey through the various kingdoms forces them to steadily collect a series of companions, including energetic young Boun (Izaac Wang), gruff giant Tong (Benedict Wong), and bizarrely acrobatic “con baby” and her trio of monkey collaborators.

That’s a perfectly respectable fellowship of wacky sidekicks to accompany a Disney princess on her journey towards self-discovery, but the striking tone of sorrow and grief that fuels Raya and the Last Dragon mutes even the silliest of characters. While the film is not so oppressively grim as to be unpleasant to watch, this is very much a film set in the aftermath of mass trauma and loss, and the film plays that material straight-on and honest.

Unlike so many other Disney films, this is not a fantasy world in which death and grief sometimes intrude. This is a fantasy world in which death and grief are the foundational stones upon which everything else is built. Because of that, every moment of levity and wonder feels like a stolen treasure, the kind you almost fear to touch in case it breaks apart in your hands and is lost to all but memory.

Parents would be strongly cautioned to gauge just what their children’s tolerance level is for this sort of fare before plunking them down to watch. This is easily the grimmest Disney animated feature since the days of The Black Cauldron, an effect that is only reinforced with its clutch of jump scares and the visceral action sequences which adopt the kinetic camera moves of post-John Wick movie fights. This is action shot and cut to make you feel every hit, and combined with the overall sorrowful tone and some extremely upsetting narrative choices, it very well might prove to be too much for the younger set.

But anyone who hangs with the film will be rewarded with one of the new pinnacles of modern feature animation, a masterpiece that can be placed alongside the likes of Spider-Verse, Wolfwalkers, and the fantasy masterworks of Studio Ghibli. The CG animation is so refined that landscapes and settings often look like photographs with only the exaggerated proportions of the characters betraying that you are watching a simulated image. And in sequences where Sisu frolics in water, the interplay of liquid and fur is so perfect that you’d swear you’re watching an animatronic creation in actual water.

Even with that level of achievement in the CG animation, Hall and Estrada find excuses to incorporate a number of other animation forms and styles, affording Raya a looseness and energy missing from some of Disney’s recent output.

Yet none of that work simulating a world will amount to much if you don’t believe in and care for the people in it. As Raya, Kelly Marie Tran keeps a firm handle on both the fearless warrior and the wounded, vulnerable child, expertly weaving both aspects of Raya into a singular heroine.

Awkwafina is also walking a delicate line as Sisu. When she first appears in the film, she is playing to the back-rafters and I worried that the filmmakers were tanking their impressively heavy tone with an overdose of wacky, Hunchback-style. But the character’s irrepressible nature quickly proves to be not a distraction from the mournful world of the film, but a direct, principled challenge to it. Sisu refuses to surrender either her joy for life or her belief in human beings no matter how stridently Raya argues otherwise. It’s up to Awkwafina’s performance to sell you on Sisu’s obstinate decency as a product of earned wisdom not blind naivete, and she pulls it off beautifully.

Much of Raya and Sisu’s disagreement comes down to Namaari, the girl who first scorned Raya’s friendship and set the world on a devastating path. Along with the filmmakers and animators, Chan has crafted a Disney villain for the ages, making inhuman choices for reasons that are painfully human. Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t interested in treating Namaari like a simple villain, instead forcing both Raya and the audience to consider the forces that shaped this girl and the choices she makes.

Raya and the Last Dragon refuses to assign blame or paint in black and white. There’s no evil kingdom to overthrow or master villain to slay. Our heroes face a confused and confusing world, with death and heartbreak dogging their footsteps and only desperate and foolish hope keeping them afloat.

For as fantastical as it is, Raya and the Last Dragon is perfectly suited to our own stunned, grief-struck world. As we crawl our way out of this pandemic, it can be difficult to believe that things could ever be made right again, that some wounds could ever be healed.

Yet despite the dark beauty that shines throughout it, Raya and the Last Dragon argues for the light. By refusing to allow easy answers, the answers that do arrive feel all the more meaningful, however simply they might be phrased. The final moments of the film left me exhilarated and exhausted, but also eager to return to its gorgeous, harrowing world again as soon as possible.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available starting Friday on Disney+ Premium Access and in theaters. Choose a safe way to see it, and then see it at once.

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