Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Writers: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong
Editors: Fabienne Rawley, Shannon Stein
All of the qualities you associate with a dragon are upended when you ask the comedian Awkwafina to voice the part. As Sisu, the eponymous dragon in Raya And The Last Dragon, she's the first to admit she's "not, like, the best" one. Gangly, goofy and irreverent, with a rapidfire pace of talking that rushes into new thoughts faster than she can finish the previous ones, Awkwafina's talent and impeccable comic timing find a fantastic showcase in this heartwarming Disney film.
It's the portions before she shows up, however, that feel a little flat. A voiceover from Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) sets the scene — 500 years ago, dragons sacrificed themselves to save the people of Kumandra, a fantasy world beset by plague. With the dragons dead and only the tiniest bit of their magic left, Kumandra splits into five factions that maintain an uneasy peace while not-so-secretly harbouring a desire to steal that magic for themselves. When the plague returns in the present day, it's up to Raya to find the last surviving dragon and save the day.
It's a lot of exposition to pack into the beginning of a film and, despite the visual respite that the gorgeous animation provides, the film does little else to make its information overload feel like less of a, well, overload. Instead of having it come up organically over several scenes, it rushes to deliver this backstory in two major chunks. Raya addresses the first to viewers, and responds to her father asking if she can name all of Kumandra's factions with the second. It's a relief when she sets off on her quest and promptly finds Sisu, who lends the film a lightheartedness and humour sorely missing from its earlier scenes.
Their friendship, buoyed by the natural chemistry between Awkwafina and Tran, reinvigorates the film. Both are excellent voice actors, with Tran steely and vulnerable in equal measure, imbuing Raya with a grit and urgency that's balanced out by Sisu's carefree nature. Each of the factions that the two travel to are visually distinct and vividly detailed, with their barren deserts, snowy peaks and bustling city markets immersive enough to feel real.
Directors Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall make optimum use of the animation format, using it to give Raya and Sisu sidekicks that wouldn't have existed in a live-action film, such as a con-artist baby and her three thieving monkeys, and a mammoth-sized pill bug that Raya rides around. Sweeping shots of civilizations turned to stone as a result of the plague lend the film a palpable undercurrent of tragedy. The action scenes, some of which seem to have lept right out of the pages of a comic book, are tense and well-choreographed.
Unlike Mulan in the recent female-led Disney film of the same name, Raya isn't imbued with special powers or pre-ordained to save her people. It's refreshing to watch her stumble, not only before the weighty challenge she undertakes, but also in the face of her own anxieties and trust issues. The film itself falters in parts by underlining its message of unity a little too strongly, when a visual callback towards the end does more to drive home the point than any of the on-the-nose dialogue. Its emotional ending, however, is well-earned and is worth the visually resplendent journey there.
Raya And The Last Dragon is playing in theatres.