‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Review: Fool Me Once
Disney’s newest Princess Raya is having some serious trust issues.
Not long after she followed her father’s example when he extended an olive branch to the other leaders of the other kingdoms that made up Kumandra – an ancient utopia of intercultural unity – she is betrayed by a new friend, Namaari (Gemma Chan) .
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) had frivolously offered her buddy – a warrior princess she had linked up with through swords and curries – to take a look at the dragon jewel that makes all adults act. Unfortunately for Raya, Namaari’s kindness is part of a trick to get that precious stone: in this fractional world where dog and dog eat, even the children are impostors.
It turns out that the stone is the only thing that stands between humanity and the Druun, a “senseless plague” that turns people into terracotta statues. This shapeless, electric-purple evil is unleashed when the gem breaks and throws the planet into the Dark Age.
Six years later, Raya is a young woman and a solo adventurer who zooms through a desert wasteland with her trusty pill-bug armadillo. Her moment of past weakness haunts her – figuratively and literally, with a combative Namaari who is always on her tail.
Belief in the goodness of other people – also from distant countries and with different convictions – is the main theme of “Raya and the Last Dragon”, which the directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and the scriptwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, In a Fantasyland -Version of Southeast Asia with floating markets, water taxis and lots of shrimp congee.
In typical Disney princess fashion, our brooding heroine acquires a funny friend in non-human form: Sisu (Awkwafina), the eponymous last dragon, who (like Mushu in “Mulan” before her) is not a threatening giant, a bulky, shape-changing My Little Pony -like creature.
Raya and Company traverse several countries to collect the scattered pieces of stone, which gives the creators an excuse to indulge in the expansive construction of the world, while snappy cuts and rousing choreographed action scenes liven up these settings with comic flair. The animators don’t stray far from the general style of recent Disney dishes like Frozen or Moana, although the film’s meticulously detailed environments – rainforest shrines full of visible moisture, snow-capped snow-capped mountain fortresses – are particularly impressive.
The Disney treatment, like the Druun themselves, seems to neutralize anything it touches, no matter how hard it works to preserve the distinctive elements of the non-Western cultures that it has brought under its label, especially recently. Is Disney paying tribute to these cultures? Or are these cultures instruments of corporate strategy? Places as diverse as Mexico (“Coco”), the Polynesian Islands (“Moana”), and now Southeast Asia have flattened along the Disney continuum, each feeling like one in a collection.
Either way, the gender politics of the recent live action “Mulan”, which some felt was degenerate, puts “Raya” in perspective: there is no doubt about our heroine’s abilities, nor is there any mention of her being exceptional . “Disney princess” may eventually become another word for “superhero”, but at least she doesn’t need to be saved.
And here are the most meaningful and transformative relationships among women, um, feminine beings. Raya and Namari must learn to trust each other despite the story of betrayal – and between them there may be, perhaps even the slightest, signs of sexual tension. Then there is Sisu, whose unwavering belief in humanity will shape both women. The rhetoric of oneness feels terribly mundane, but it also teaches forgiveness: a worthy lesson for the children.
Raya and the last dragon
Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters and on Disney +. Please consult the Policies of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before viewing films in theaters.