Movie Review: Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” animates an Asia of myth

Nothing more instantly-dates an animated film for children than over-earnest efforts to contemporize the dialogue, to render it slangy and to-the-minute current.

That’s all over the script to Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” where a lot of effort was put into making the dragon, in particular, sound flip and hip.

She’s voiced by the comic actress Awkwafina, so the pale blue dragon lets us know “I’m gonna be real with you, I’m not the BEST dragon,” that “I got water skills that kill!” and “I gotcha girl. WHO’S your dragon?”

“Super sketchy,” if you asked me. “BOOM goes the dynamite,” which even the kids have moved on from, thank heavens. The strain shows, and slang is no substitute for actual humor — sight gags or funny lines.

That said, “Raya” is a pleasant enough kids’ adventure — “Raiders of the Lost Ark” meets “Mulan” who is now a “Tomb Raider.”

The story is a made-up mash-up of Pan-Asian/Southeast Asian myths hanging on learning to “trust” people again, and features a plague that has decimated the land and a heroine whose lifelong pal is a pet pangolin, the pill-bug armadillo which the Chinese government blames for the global pandemic COVID-19.

Timely? Sure. Accidentally a tad on-the-nose, and eyebrow-raising in theme? Oh yes.

We meet Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (the recent “Star Wars” trilogy), apprenticed to her Guardian of the Dragon Gem father (Daniel Dae Kim). It’s kept in a temple in the land of Heart, one of the five nations of the land that was broken when the last dragon died defending against the Droon (a vividly visual rendition of a plague).

But the gem, a reminder of the dragons’ sacrifice, is coveted by the other states — Fang, Talon, Tail and Spine — which broke up and took the names of the parts of a dragon.

Raya is tricked by the Fang girl Namaari, leading to the stone shattering. Namaari grows up to be a nemesis voiced by Gemma Chan. Five states each keep a shard from the stone, Droon returns to devastate the land and Raya makes it her life’s mission to figure out if there’s a surviving dragon, and if she can piece the stone back together and end the plague.

Raya, riding her pangolin-ish pillbug steed, searches the rivers for the dragon, and finally finds Sisu. But with all the mistrust and treachery, can she and her shape-shifting dragon (Awkwafina) put their world to right?

Their quest puts Raya into many magical martial arts fights, has her stumble into a “con baby,” a cute street hustler and thief in league with thieving monkeys, just one of the legions of orphans in a land wiped out by Droon. There’s a hustling teen “Shrimporium” proprietor (Izaac Wang) and a wizened, one-eyed warrior (Benedict Wong) who have their roles to play.

As thin as the story and themes and comic relief moments are, “Raya” has redeeming dollops of heart — the way even the quarreling five states are awed and religiously respectful at their first encounter with a creature of legend, or the graveyard where so many of the creatures were turned to stone.

And the action sequences, derivative of many a martial arts combat film that they are, dazzle.

“Hand-to-hand, or sword?” “BLADES all the way!”

The film borrows animation tricks from the “Kung Fu Panda” movies — animated rod puppets and shadow puppets illustrate the flashbacks to the “legend” that the movie purports to revive.

“Kung Fu Panda” spawned a recent run of animated films set in Asia, but none — aside from the Jack Black voiced martial arts comedies — have really clicked with me. “Over the Moon” and “Abominable” and “Raya and the Last Dragon” are big on message, one that seems Chinese government-sanctioned (or at least tailored not to offend that government), light on entertainment. This may be pitched as Southeast Asian, but the lands (deserts, snow) aren’t. Vague on purpose?

Younger kids won’t necessarily recognize what they’re missing, but the distinct lack of “Disney magic” shows in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” There’s more of that in the bouncy, touching and lightly charming Disney short “Us Again” attached to “Raya.”

MPA Rating: PG, action violence

Cast: The voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan, Daniel Kae Kim, Izaac Wang, Sandra Oh and (maybe) Betty White.

Credits: Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. A Walt Disney release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Movie Review: Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” animates an Asia of myth

  1. Jen Malone says:

    When you saw Frozen, did you talk about Italian myths through the whole review? When you watched An American Tale, did you try and fail to joke about the Canadian government the whole time?

    Because that’s basically what you did here. Raya is based on Southeast Asian mythology, not Chinese.

    • Roger Moore says:

      “Pan Asian” like the characters and myth-mash-up story? Which is how I described it? Here’s where you and your friends are losing the thread. The movie has lots of Chinese voice actors, has overt Chinese messaging.
      The fairytale’s geography, meteorology and topography are dry, mountainous, snow on bamboo forests and deserts.
      Sound like SE Asia or Japan? Indonesia? Malaysia? No. Roughly India to Korea, “Pan Asian.” With anime/”Mulan” dragons.
      I’m reviewing the movie Disney showed me, not Disney’s background spin on what they intended. It leans into the dominant culture in Asia, part of the company’s long-term strategy.
      Have you seen it? It’s obvious, and no, I’m not talking about the ugly and unfortunate coincidence of a plague and pangolin in it. This “we have to get along and be unified again.” That strike you as a little “officially sanctioned?” It did me.

      And if my recognizing Chinese imperialism in “Abominable” cringe at what Disney pandering did to the remake of “Mulan” and call out messaging that I see an Asian dictatorship flexing its muscles to impose on films gets me roasted by pissants on Twitter, that’s the cost of doing business.

      • Timothy Dalton says:

        I agree with Roger Moore. Disney is nothing more than an extension of Tencent media and our new Chinese overlords. Get used to a lot more bland material from that can sell well in communist China, and has no real substance.

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