There have to be a number of reasons to dust off that rarely used blunderbuss of a five star rating. A film has to hit the heights, score a rave in almost every area, AND have that secret, magical ingredient that makes it an absolute must see picture. Despite gestating from back in pre-virus 2018 (under the title Dragon Empire) this elaborate epic fantasy from Disney is a likely shoo-in for the most relevant film on 2021, given that there’s an of-the-moment moral message that’s sharpened to a point by the travails that the world has been through in the last few years. Raya and the Last Dragon is smart, woke and energetic; it’s also funny, likable and a welcome blast of spirited old-school Disney at its best. Raya may make a staggered debut in home entertainment, but any cinema that chooses to screen this will be a happy destination for a family outing, all summer long.
A virus-like scourge known as the Druun has decimated the land of Kumandara, and the only protection comes from the magic of the mythic dragons which have sacrificed themselves to save the world. This magic is now contained within one magic gem, but the collective trauma involved has polarised the population into warring tribes, who lie, backstab and plot against each other at every opportunity. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father have been entrusted with the safe-keeping of the precious jewel, but a mistaken act of trust leaves the crystal shattered and the pieces hoarded by the different polarised factions, named after parts of the dragon, Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail. From this start, Raya sets out on a quest to find the missing pieces and re-unite her kingdom, and finds an unexpected ally in Sisu, the last dragon, voiced by Awkwafina.
Yup, that’s right, the rasping tones of Awkwafina are very much in evidence in bringing Sisu to life, and it’s a casting coup that absolutely makes the film. Celebrity voice-work has been a trend since Robin Williams’ break-out turn as the genie in Aladdin, but while Sisu isn’t quite as dynamic a pop-culture name-dropper, Awkwafina’s stellar performance raises Raya’s narrative to top gear. Don Hall (director of Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada pull together an epic journey with all the bells and whistles that you’d expect from big Disney products, but there’s a radical, fresh moral dimension about taking personal responsibility. ‘The world is broken. We have to lie,’ complains Raya. ‘Maybe that’s why it’s broken,’ admonishes Sisu, and the whole narrative seems to have been constructed to combat the narrative of division and despair that we’ve experienced from 2016 onwards.
An absolute tonic for young and old alike, Raya and the Last Dragon is deserving of a full range of accolades. It’s top drawer Disney, it’s a thoughtful, nimble riposte to the brainless slug-fests that most family films descend into, and it’s a self-aware, open-minded slice of world-building that should open the doors for a new franchise. We’ve been waiting for a truly game-changing film for some time, and this is it; even if it was conceived before the current crisis, Raya and the Last Dragon is a warm, prescient family entertainment, and just what we need right now.
Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon Releases on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™ and DVD Today, May 18th 2021. Thanks to Disney for advanced access to this title.