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After the Irish romance “Once” premiered, Steven Spielberg said the film gave him “enough inspiration to last the rest of the year,” he told USA Today at the time. Considering the musical reached theaters across the pond in May 2007, Spielberg’s creative manna lasted around six months.
More than a decade later, Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon,” available for purchase now on Disney+, is a very different kind of film, hardly comparable to a low-budget indie flick, yet it should inspire filmmakers and film lovers to strive for more. Never has a Disney film succeeded on so many levels. It checks the usual boxes: humorous, endearing sidekicks, cute animals, complex parental problems, etc.
But “Raya” does something else only a few fairy stories on the big screen have effectively accomplished: execute a deeply poetic and moving story in a complex fantasy setting. Certainly, Disney Animation has the tools to accomplish such a feat, but the studio often settles for smaller, simpler fae worlds with less anomalies – hair that heals here, ice powers there – but this is a full-blown magical world in all its glory.
It begins with a locale drawing upon Southeast Asia. The once-united Kumandra fractured 500 years ago when the last dragons sacrificed themselves to quell the Druun, magical monsters who turn their prey to stone. Since then, the kingdom split into five territories, though the Land of Heart’s leader Benji (Daniel Dae Kim) hopes to bring all the tribes back together once more.
Alas, that goes sideways. The final remnants of dragon magic break, and the Druun roam the region again, fracturing Kumandra for a second time. Much of the region is now deserted – stone figures pepper the land – and the few surviving humans isolate themselves or endure impoverished lives, always in fear that the Druun, an uncontainable force that only appears as clouds of purple and black, will snuff them out.
Young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), princess of Heart, holds onto hope that she can save her tribe, though she’s done with trust. She travels the ruins of Kumandra alone, searching for the legendary last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), who cast the spell centuries ago stopping the Druun.
When the pair finally meet, they must collect all the broken pieces of the Dragon Gem, now in the possession of each tribe. Along the way, they not only collect ancient artifacts but a slew of quirky companions, like 10-year-old Boun (Izaac Wang) and Little Noi, a con-artist baby who steals the show and some hors d’oeuvres as well.
Those disembodied nemeses are truly formidable, and probably a deal breaker for younger audiences, but “Raya” includes another foe: her counterpart from Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan). They have history. But Namaari is hardly a one-dimensional orc on the warpath. She too has a complicated relationship with a parent, and she cares deeply for the safety of her people.
“Raya” borrows heavily from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and other adventure films featuring a quest for various objects – McGuffin overload. There’s even a “Mad Max” aesthetic as Raya traverses deserts on her oversized armadillo-pug-pillbug pet Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk).
Younger viewers might have trouble with “Raya,” both scared by the Druun’s spooky visualization and bored by the plot. But older, and especially adult audiences will view this one differently. Like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra,” this is high-concept animated fantasy, requiring more from its consumers.
Still, there’s plenty of familiar Disney fare. Awkwafina’s voice work is hilarious, but her character also serves as the moral core of the film. She might be an insecure dragon, burdened by her past and isolation in the world, but remains optimistic about humanity’s potential for great good, despite years that prove otherwise.
And Tran’s Raya is marvelous – the princess story the House of Mouse should only tell moving forward. No need for a love interest (though there clearly is one), she spends most of her time honing her sword skills. And that sword is something special.
Without an ounce of hyperbole, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the best Disney film of the modern age, the kind of cinematic experience that needs no parenthetical disclaimer to enjoy. Incredible action, computer animation and a heartening story whose message is eternal.
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