In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon. (from IMDb)
While Pixar was on the rise, Disney seemed to struggle to release computer animated movies from their own studio that could match the caliber of the ones coming out of Pixar (Chicken Little, anyone?). Thankfully, in recent years, with hits like Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph (and its quirky sequel), and Big Hero 6, Disney’s own in-house animation studio has proven they can not only produce great features, but they can arguably rival what Pixar has been releasing. Pixar’s top quality craft often goes beyond what you’d expect from family entertainment, covering serious and deep emotional themes. In the end, some of the movies end up being far more appealing to the adults than the children they’re expected to target. But all along, Disney’s own features have kept that element of being for the whole family – parents and children alike – and their latest entry, the action/adventure fantasy Raya and the Last Dragon is a great example of this.
In the same vein as films like Mulan, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantasy adventure that explores Asian culture, as well as the myth of dragons, merging the two in a unique way. There may be some familiar elements here and there in Raya and the Last Dragon, but for the most part, it’s a pretty unique original story that is inspired by Southeast Asia. The film’s story revolves around five very different tribes who live in disharmony (after formerly being united as Kumandra), and Raya’s father from the land of Heart believes they can be united together once again. The legend has it that dragons once roamed the land, but a dark plague called The Druun swept over Kumandra, turning people and dragons to stone. In an effort to defeat The Druun, legend said that a mighty dragon named Sisu harnessed her magical powers into an orb to defeat The Druun. This released the humans from stone, but not the other dragons. The orb ended up in the hands of the Heart land to keep safe, where it remained until the other tribes fought over it, splitting the orb into pieces and releasing The Druun once again. It then becomes Raya’s mission to find if Sisu still exists and try to unite the pieces of the orb to defeat The Druun again and release those turned to stone.
The story revolves heavily around the theme of trusting people and unification. In a time where our world seems more divided than ever, it probably couldn’t be much more timely. Trust is always a tough task when people prove to be less than trustworthy, but the story encourages people to take a leap of faith and not be as isolated, guarded and stubborn as those we’re afraid we can’t truth. Granted, real world situations beg for wisdom and discernment to be used when knowing how and when to trust someone, but the overarching theme of this story is that, to overcome evil and ultimately live, there must be unity and trust – and that’s not a bad thing to strive for.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a great movie for the family, but it is certainly action-packed with emotional elements that you can usually expect in a Disney outing. Our 10-year-old son (who’s a sensitive little fellow, bless his heart), was nervous through some of the action and drama, but ended up ultimately loving the movie and talking about how much he enjoyed it the next day (and the next…). He’s a big fan of the How to Train Your Dragon series, so this movie scratched his itch for a new original dragon story. (He adored Sisu!) Raya and the Last Dragon is a much different film than that DreamWorks series, however. In How to Train Your Dragon, the dragons are like pets; they don’t talk and certainly don’t act like people. Raya and the Last Dragon is a bit more like Mulan in that Sisu is a fast-talking and somewhat obnoxious dragon, like Eddie Murphy’s Mushu in that 1998 film. Sisu is voiced by comedienne Awkwafina, who alone is a bit of an acquired taste. I don’t love Awkwafina’s schtick too much, but she definitely can still be funny (she was perfect in capturing Danny DeVito’s grumpy nature in Jumanji: The Next Level). Sisu looks beautiful and majestic, but obviously Awkwafina’s voice and demeanor is edgier and more prickly, which in itself makes for an off-putting but amusing juxtaposition. Kelly Marie Tran is perfect as Raya. Her The Last Jedi character, Rose Tico, is a polarizing character for Star Wars fans, but she’s an inspired choice to voice Raya; I loved her in this. Gemma Chan is great as the antagonist, Namaari, and Benedict Wong is just plain delightful as the surprisingly not menacing Tong. But by far the weirdest character choice in the entire film is Little Noi, a barely 2-year-old baby that can’t even talk yet but is a con artist who is surprisingly efficient in martial arts and has three monkey cohorts. My son was actually amused by Noi, but to me, she didn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the movie.
The martial arts action in the movie is surprisingly violent or even rough for a kids movie like this, but I also kind of found it refreshing. The fight scenes don’t hold back while still not ever turning bloody or even lethal — although we do see a character take an arrow in the leg. Raya gets a few solid fights in the story and they’re all great to watch. I think my son was pretty surprised by the action sequences, but ultimately enjoyed them (especially since they end well and aren’t gruesome). I think the last time I saw family friendly martial arts fights like these were in the wonderful Kung Fu Panda films, but each characters’ fighting style in this movie is directly influenced and modeled after a real fighting style inspired by Southeast Asian culture. In the movie’s Special Features, the film’s screenwriter was thrilled to reveal that all of the fight choreography is inspired by the real thing, so any fans watching the movie could look into it and study the techniques for themselves!
The content for the movie is definitely PG. As you can imagine with the martial arts action, it’s more than what you’d expect for your usual Disney G-rated movie. There is no profanity or sexual content either. The story is heavily inspired by mythical magic and a deadly “plague” called The Druun, so those sensitive to magical themes will probably want to skip this one. The Druun are dark whispy clouds with glowing purple light in them that engulf people and turn them to stone statues (Which also reminded me of Kung Fu Panda 3). There are several emotional moments when The Druun turn significant characters to stone, but thankfully the movie has a positive resolution that should alleviate any viewers especially impacted by this.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a surprising delight. It’s a wonderful fantasy story driven by Southeast Asian culture and martial arts action. It offers memorable characters and a relevant theme about sacrifice, family, and coming together. Overall, I recommend it.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 4/4/21)
iTunes / Digital Copy Bonus Features Review
Raya and the Last Dragon is currently still in theaters but is also available via digital retailers.
Along with the feature film, the iTunes digital copy of Raya and the Last Dragon includes the following extras:
An Introduction to Us Again (1:20) – Writer/director Zach A. Parrish talks about getting older and about how age is really just a state of mind.
Us Again – Theatrical Short (6:47) is a brilliant and beautiful story about an elderly couple. The wife tries to get her husband off his recliner to join her outside for a walk, but he refuses to leave. She decides to go alone, feeling rejected, while the husband ventures out to their balacony and finds that the rain that begins falling makes him young again. He begins dancing in the streets and finds his wife with whom he begins to dance with again as their young selves. The experience rekindles their passion when they inevitably return to their elderly appearances.
Taste of Raya (22:09) is a Zoom call where Kelly Marie Tran, the films’ directors, and others from the film’s creative team talk about the movie and story, while sharing different foods from a Southeast Asian menu.
Raya: Bringing It Home (14:36) is about making the film during the pandemic and how relevant the message is.
Martial Artists (5:48) – The screenwriter, Qui Nguyen, was first a fight coordinator before becoming a writer, and he wrote the fights into the script. The fights were then choreographed before and during the pandemic. They also talk about how there were different martial arts fighting styles utilized for the different lands.
We are Kumandra (9:10) is about the filmmakers diving into the Southeast Asian culture and consulting experts, visiting the real life locations for research, and more.
Outtakes (2:23) – This is a fun little collection of mistakes and technical issues that occured while the actors were recording their lines at home.
Fun Facts and Easter Eggs (4:16) reveals some fun tidbits about the characters and story – like how Raya’s fighting style is Pencak Silat from Malaysia, and her staffs are modeled after Kalis and Arnis from the Phillippines! It also addresses some other Easter Eggs, including Hei Hei from Moana and a lizard inspired by Bruni from Frozen 2, as well as the usual inclusion of hidden Mickey shapes. There are also some production facts, like how female-driven the production team was, how many characters were animated in the film (hint: it’s A LOT!) and how over 900+ Disney employees worked on the film from home!
The Story Behind the Storyboard (5:02) – John Ripa gives insight into how storyboarding works and how pitching ideas works for films like Raya and the Last Dragon.
Deleted Scenes (18:58) – Finally, there are five deleted scenes shown in storyboard form, with an intro from Head of Story, Fawn Veerasunthorn.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 3/24/21)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Blood/Gore: Benja takes an arrow to the leg, but it’s not gross or gory (he quickly pulls it out).
Violence: Some SPOILERS ahead: We see a 2D stylized animated prologue that shows a purple and black cloud “plague” turning people and dragons to stone; Raya crawls through a dark tunnel and some nets drop down in an effort to stop her, but she just crawls under them; Benja and Raya spar with sticks and his sword which is still in its sheath; Raya describes the other tribes in narration form and we see angry 2D animation of these people with swords and axes; Two young girls fight hand to hand. Soldiers with spears show up and are about to attack, too, when Benja shows up with his sword and defends her; Benja takes an arrow to the leg, but it’s not gross or gory (he pulls it out); A gem falls and breaks; The temple starts to crumble; The Druun – the black and purple cloud – appears and attacks the people, turning a man to stone. It follows them as they run away as it turns other people to stone. A person pushes Raya off a bridge and then is turned to stone; Years have passed and Raya suddenly comes upon The Druun, which knocks her down, but she uses a piece of the dragon gem to repel the cloud; Namaari knocks one of her soldiers to the ground after he questions her; Raya trips a trap that dumps sand on Namaari, her cats and men. They then set off a bunch of “toot and boom” bugs which pop and spray a colorful cloud; Little Noi hits Raya and her pet monkeys steal from her and Raya chases them; The Talon chief double crosses Sisu and The Druun almost gets her; Raya and Sisu get bagged up and then we see them tied up and hanging; Tuk Tuk busts through the door and knocks over Tong; Raya and Namaari fight and Raya is punched in the face and kicked down; Boun imagines fighting off the Fang soldiers (as he suggests a scenario where this happens); A monkey knocks out a guy by hitting him on the shoulder; A dragon is hit by an arrow and falls off a cliff; We see people panicking and running as The Druun tear through the Fang city; Namaari and Raya fight aggressively with blades. Raya knocks her down and stands over her; We see more people turn to stone as The Druun whirls around them.