Movie Review: Raya and the last Dragon
The new Disney blockbuster pushes female characters to the forefront, but ambient violence and distrust betrays a sensitivity to the fair sex with slings, arrows and spears.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh
Directed by: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Running time: 1 hr 47 mins
Rating: Parental Guidance
By Katherine Monk
During the Cold War, it was the idea of malevolent aliens that captured the Zeitgeist with an odd set of long, grey fingers. These days, as a pandemic pulls us back to darker ages via digitally enhanced conspiracies, the idea of dragons appears to have set its fangs into our collective subconscious.
From Game of Thrones to countless cartoons featuring scaled, winged creatures, dragons have filled a hole; a need for mystery and magic — a world where hope can rise from the ashes of despair… but as the title of this latest Disney animated spectacle proves, it won’t be easy. And time is running out.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a story forged by our desperate times: A once-united nation has been divided into warring tribes, unleashing a malignant force that turns people into stone. The last source of goodness, the ‘dragon gem,’ resides in the kingdom of Heart — causing resentment in the neighbouring bergs of Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. “They all assume the dragon gems brings us prosperity,” explains the leader of Heart to his daughter, a young warrior princess named Raya. Her father believes in Kumandra — a dragon-inspired re-unification of the nation, but isn’t so willing to trust. In the opening act we see her betrayed by a new friend from Fang — leading to the ultimate destruction of the dragon gem, and the central dilemma in the film.
These days, as a pandemic pulls us back to darker ages via digitally enhanced conspiracies, the idea of dragons appears to have set its fangs into our collective subconscious.
Raya must journey to each kingdom in an attempt to reconstruct the gem, and hopefully bring the pieces of the dragon gem back together, and kindle the magic that can re-animate the rock hard humans.
Little did she suspect he might accidentally conjure the very thing she’s been seeking her whole life: Sisu, the last dragon. Not only that, she does it early on in the movie, ensuring our young heroine has a goofy dragon sidekick for the duration of the film.
With Awkwafina taking on the role of the ‘last dragon,’ this sweet and sour mix of Mulan, Lassie and Avengers finds a wackiness that lets it float over the sea of cliche that washes over the screen from the first few computer-generated frames. The actor can deliver comedy and gravitas in the same line, just through a friendly inflection.
She’s the much needed tonic to the darkness that looms throughout this kids’ story. At times, the whole film feels too focused on violence and war for a family-room viewing, yet, as disturbing as it is, it fits the overall theme: The whole world is broken. Love no longer rules people’s spirit. Now, fear rules — manifested in the swirling red “Drunn” that consumes humans and turns them to stone. Sisu the dragon, reanimated after 500 years of slumber, can’t believe things have become so dark. Yet, unlike her human friend Raya, Sisu believes there is hope for redemption — because she still believes in love, the love she has for her dragon family — who were also turned to stone half a millennium ago.
Awkwafina is the much needed tonic to the darkness that looms throughout this kids’ story. At times, the whole film feels too focused on violence and war for a family-room viewing, yet, as disturbing as it is, it fits the overall theme: The whole world is broken.
One of the more poignant moments comes when Sisu wonders why she was last dragon, and as such, the species’ last hope for redemption. “I’m gonna get real with you,” she tells Raya. “I’m not the best dragon. I didn’t create the dragon gem, I just turned it in… I don’t know why they picked me… it could have been anyone. I’m just a strong swimmer.”
The humility in the moment is so refreshing, especially in a genre that centres around a central conceit of superpowers, magic and something intangible that can correct the course of human history.
The dragon inevitably saves the day, not just for the violent and vengeful humans, but for the dragons, too — as well as this whole twisted Disney adventure that tries hard to further the expected aspects of genre by offering female characters in central roles, only to trip on the unholy mess of war, weaponry and graphic violence that makes up most of the pixelated action.
In other words, the characters may be female, but the action is defined by masculine concepts of nationhood, winners and losers, and hereditary privilege. Oh well, at least they push the right message at the end: It’s not dragons or magic that will fix the world, only a mutual desire to rebuild the broken trust that once kept the dragons, the humans and the concept of Kumandra co-existing in peace and harmony.
THE EX-PRESS, March 2, 2021