Review – Raya and the Last Dragon

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, March 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Disney’s latest animated movie, rated PG, has held the top spot at the box office for the last two weeks. I’ll help you decide if it’s worth an outing to theaters or thirty dollars on streaming.

CLIP: How did our world get so broken? Well, that all began 500 years ago. Kumandra. This is what we used to be when our land was whole and we lived harmoniously alongside dragons. Magical creatures who brought us water and rain and peace. It was a paradise.

But as Disney’s latest big movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, opens, the land of Kumandra has become a paradise lost. It is a world beset by dissension, where envy drives complicated socio-political negotiations and distrust reigns supreme. Every negative event is an opportunity for one faction to impute guilt to another, and no one seems able to come together, even for the purpose of furthering their own self-interests. If weren’t for those magical dragons, it would in many ways resemble our own world these days.

But Chief Benja, played by Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim, believes there is another way to live. He tries to teach his daughter, Princess Raya, played by Kelly Marie Tran, to pursue common ground. At the outset of the story, he invites the monarchs of the other four lands to a peace summit.

CLIP: We’re not going to poison them and we’re not going to fight them. We’re going to share a meal with them. Wait what? I invited them. But they are enemies. They’re only our enemies because they think the dragon jem magically brings prosperity. That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t do that. They assume it does. Just like we assume things about them. Raya, there’s a reason why each land is named after a part of the dragon. We were once unified. Harmoniously as one. Kumandra. That’s ancient history Ba. But it doesn’t have to be. If we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart. 

But lessons of trust are hard learned. When Raya and another princess battle over the sacred dragon gem believed to grant prosperity and break it, they unleash the Druun. These are a sort of negative energy born of human discord that turn all the life they touch to ash and stone, including Raya’s father.

Flash forward six years and Raya embarks on a quest to reunite the broken pieces of the dragon gem and awaken the last magical dragon, Sisu, to restore Kumandra.

If all that seems like pretty standard fantasy fare, well, that’s because it is. But the way the story is realized makes for a stunning visual experience. The five lands of Kumandra—Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine, and Tail—named for different parts of the dragon, are gorgeously realized. Inspired by several Southeast Asian countries, each has a distinct sense of culture and atmosphere, different from typical settings in this genre.

Also refreshing—for once we get a Disney princess who needs to learn more from her parent than the other way around. It’s a welcome change that Raya has real character growth to undergo. Her default personality—distrustful and a tiny bit arrogant—eventually compounds her problems rather than alleviates them. 

CLIP: We don’t know him. It could be poison. Why would he poison us? Yeah, why would I poison you? First, to get my jade purse, second, to steal my sword, and third, I don’t know, to kidnap my tuk-tuk. All good points, but if this is poison, you’re going to die happy.

And while the warrior princess theme has certainly been overdone in recent years, in this case, it doesn’t feel as girl-power-y as it has in the past. Perhaps because, surprisingly, there’s no love interest here.  

Less appealing for Christian parents will be depictions of dragon worship. Because Kumandra is a make believe world, this goes beyond simply faithfully depicting a different culture, as we saw in Mulan. At one point Raya falls to her knees and prays to Sisu. She also performs religious rituals, bowing down to the gem that represents the spirit of the dragons.

CLIP: The spirit of Sisu, I can feel it. It’s the last bit of dragon magic in the whole world. I can see why heart guards it so closely.

However, some concern over this is mitigated once we actually meet the dragon Raya is worshiping. As played by Awkwafina, Sisu is a bit silly and underwhelming. Honestly, there’s not much to her character to inspire devotion or laughs.

CLIP: But you’re a dragon. I’m going to be real with you, all right? I’m not like the best dragon, you know? But you save the world. I did do that. That’s true. But have you ever done like a group project but there is like, that one kid, who didn’t pitch in as much but still ended with the same grade. Yeah, I wasn’t the one who actually made the gem. I just turned it in.

So in the end, while Raya and the Last Dragon may not have the staying power of past Disney princesses, she does offer some beautiful scenery and perhaps a chance to point out to children the truth of Proverbs. Life and death are in the tongue. And as even dragons fall before envy, we should make it our aim not to build societies based on it.

(Disney+ via AP) Animated character Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, left, appears with Sisu the dragon in a scene from “Raya and the Last Dragon.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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