Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A colorful quest for trust and unity

Disney animation feature film “Raya and the Last Dragon”, which was supposed to be released around the end of the last year but then gets released in this month instead due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is charming and exuberant to say the least. Briskly hopping from one spot to another as a conventional fantasy adventure tale, the movie often delights us via its distinctive cultural style and details in addition to providing several exhilarating actions scenes, and it is also a bit touching as delivering to us the messages on trust and unity in the end.

In the beginning, our princess warrior heroine Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) tells us a bit about her fantasy world. Around 500 years ago, Kumandra and its people were threatened by evil entities called the Drunn, and Kumandra was on the verge of total annihilation as the Drunn swiftly ravaged all of its five lands, but it was eventually saved by the immense sacrifice of dragons, who defeated the Drunn at the last minute via one powerful magical gem. Although the Drunn were wiped out as a result and almost everything in Kumandra was also restored, the dragons became extinct except one dragon, who was vanished to somewhere shortly after using that magical gem against the Drunn.

During the next 500 years, the five lands of Kumandra have clashed a lot over the ownership of that magical gem. Although it is now safely stored in the Heart Land, Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), the wise and benevolent leader of the Heart Land, is well aware of how eager other four lands are to possess that magical gem, and Raya is ready to protect it along with her father – especially after she becomes an official guardian after passing her father’s test.

When Chief Benja subsequently invites the leaders of the other four lands to his court, he hopes for more trust and unity among his land and the other four lands, but, alas, that unwittingly leads to a disastrous consequence as the leaders of the other four lands turn out to be quite willing to snatch that magical gem by any means necessary. Shortly after that magic gem is broken into five pieces, the Drunn return to everyone’s horror, and Kumandra becomes quite divided and devastated as before.

Firmly believing that finding that vanished dragon who saved the day at that time will lead to the restoration of her world, Raya has looked around here and there throughout Kumandra during next several years. Riding her trusted steed which looks like a cross between armadillo and pill bug, she embarks on what will be her last chance of finding that dragon, but things still looks hopeless to say the least, and she does not expect much even while executing a ritual for bringing back that dragon.

And then, what do you know, that dragon in question comes to appear right in front of her eyes, and Raya is caught off guard to see that Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) is quite different from her expectation. Although she did that heroic feat for wiping out the Drunn, Sisu is just a young water dragon full of cheery goofiness, and she actually does not know well what to do next for saving Kumandra.

Anyway, it soon becomes quite clear to both Raya and Sisu that they must gather those five pieces of that magical gem together for saving Kumandra from the Drunn, and that is the beginning of their bumpy journey across the four other lands of Kumandra besides the Heart Land. Raya already has one piece, so all she and Sisu will have to do is getting those four other pieces from the four other lands of Kumandra, respectively.

As Raya, Sisu, and several other characters who happen to get associated with them roll from one land to another, the film, which is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada with Paul Briggs and John Ripa serving as their co-directors, gives us a series of distinctive sequences packed with each own colorful cultural mood and details. According to the IMDB trivia, these several different regions of Kumandra are mainly inspired by the Southeast Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos, and that certainly brings considerable personality to the film itself along with the fantastic score by James Newton Howard.

While there are a number of swift and exciting action sequences to entertain us, the film also constantly stays focused on what is going on among its main characters. We get lots of good laughs from Sisu’s goofy personality, but she is really sincere in having faith in people out there, and that eventually influences a lot not only Raya but also Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), who is initially introduced as Raya’s main opponent but then comes to open her eyes to the value of trust and unity just like Raya and her accidental colleagues.

The voice cast members of the film are commendable on the whole. While Kelly Marie Tran, who has been more notable since her breakthrough supporting turn in “Star Wars: the Last Jedi” (2017), earnestly holds the ground as required, Awkwafina, who has advanced a lot since her notable supporting turn in “Ocean’s 8” (2018), deftly swings between humor and drama, and the other main cast members including Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, and Benedict Wong dutifully fill their respective supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Raya and the Last Dragon” may not surprise you much in terms of story and characters as your typical Disney animation film, but it is equipped with enough style, energy, and personality at least, and it surely refreshed me to some degree during last evening. I could clearly discern what I was going to get, but the film did a better job than I expected, and I assure you that you will gladly embrace its wholesome spirit.

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