Raya and the Last Dragon movie review: Kelly Marie Tran is radiant in Disney's rip-roaring adventure
- Raya and the Last Dragon movie review: Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina put their own twist on the Mulan-Mushu dynamic in Disney's latest animated adventure.
Call it an act of repentance on Disney’s part for throwing Kelly Marie Tran under the bus, or call it another excuse for Alan Tudyk to make animal noises for a couple of hours in exchange of equity, but nothing should take away from the fact that Raya and the Last Dragon is another step in the right direction for the Mouse House. And in a happy coincidence, it might just be the most ‘unremakable’ film that the studio has produced in a while.
Part Tomb Raider and part The Legend of Korra, Disney Animation’s latest feature film tells the mythic story of Raya, a young woman who goes on an epic adventure to secure shiny McGuffins which will help her unite the five warring tribes of her world. That’s about as much as you need to know, even though the ‘world’ of Raya and the Last Dragon is rich with lore and vibrantly detailed.
Watch the Raya and the Last Dragon trailer here
And as you’d imagine, there is a dragon in it, but not the sort you’re thinking of. Sisu isn’t a scaly, fire-breathing monster out of Game of Thrones, but a furry, horse-like creature with the attitude of a sassy Asian-American comedian. Played by Awkwafina, Sisu is milked for humour in the film, foreshadowing, perhaps, the manner in which Disney will squeeze millions out of the character through plushy sales.
Kelly Marie Tran, meanwhile, plays the titular Raya (pronounced Rye-uh). The actor was dealt such a cruel blow after Star Wars: The Last Jedi, when she was essentially written out of the series in a clear instance of the world's biggest movie studio bowing down to racist trolls. Who knows, perhaps the deal for her to star in Raya was struck back then, as fair compensation for what studio was about to do. In any case, Tran deserves all the starring roles and more — not only because of what she represents, but also because she has such a unique combination of grit and gentleness; and an innate ability to draw audiences in. In another world, she’d be leading big-budget movies that didn’t feel the need to hide her face behind ones and zeroes.
Some things can only be achieved in animation, though. What worked in the cartoon Mulan failed miserably in the live-action remake. What worked best — Mushu the dragon — was left out completely. It would be impossible to do a live-action version of Raya and the Last Dragon, not only because it would probably cost a gazillion dollars, but also because your suspension of disbelief works double shifts while watching cartoons.
Take, for instance, the ‘fellowship’ of heroes that comes together in the film’s excellent third act. There’s Raya, of course; a ‘regular’ person, all things said and done. But there’s also a fast-talking dragon, a middle-aged warrior, an enterprising boy, a baby, three monkeys, and a giant bug. I had a harder time buying Parineeti Chopra as an alcoholic last week.
Directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada, along with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, craft some truly imaginative action set-pieces, the most memorable of which involves farting insects. There’s a mission-oriented structure to the plot — a video game-inspired approach that ends with the requisite ‘boss fight’ — but even though it’s slightly simplistic, crucially, it’s never patronising. Similarly, the film is political, but never preachy.
Raya and the Last Dragon does, however, have a slight whiff of the agenda-driven moviemaking that most Hollywood studios are dabbling in, especially these days. Here, the filmmakers have cast actors of East Asian descent to play characters clearly rooted in Southeast Asian culture — this is like hiring Priyanka Chopra to play a Latina, which is also something that actually happened.
We’ve come a long way from veteran Disney directors Ron Clements and John Musker admitting that cultural sensitivity wasn’t a part of the conversation at all back in the day, when they made Aladdin. But the same filmmakers made sure to represent Maori culture with respect years later, when they directed Moana. It’s only a matter of time before it finally occurs to someone that stories about Southeast Asia should perhaps be told by Southeast Asian filmmakers.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Directors - Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Cast - Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar