TL;DR – the hero’s journey of Raya has the usual splash of Disney formula as she embarks on finding the pieces of a magical gem that will banish the evil spirits of the Drunn and reunite the land of Kumandra.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Visually stunning, Raya and the Last Dragon, takes you on a journey to the mystical land of Kumandra where evil spirits known as the Drunn are seeking to destroy life and turn all creatures into stone. In an act of sacrifice, five dragon guardians combine their magic to create a gem that banishes the Drunn. Though the land is revived, Kumandra separates into five tribes – Heart, Fang, Talon, Spine and Tail and in the ensuing centuries, they battle for possession of the gem.
Fast forward five hundred years and we are introduced to Raya, the daughter of the chief of the Heart tribe who are the current protectors of the gem. Raya’s father wants to reunite Kumandra with the other four tribes. He extends an olive branch and invites the other tribes to a feast with the aim towards reconciliation, healing and peace.
Of course, you know that is not what is going to happen. Jealousy, betrayal, hatred reveals their ugly heads and the gem is fought over resulting in it breaking into five pieces. One piece whisked away by each tribe, unleashing the Drunn back into existence and causing everyone in the Heart tribe to be turned to stone by the evil spirits except Raya, who is saved only through her father sacrificing his own life.
There are plenty of not-so-subtle messages throughout the film. The Drunn arguably a manifestation of humanity’s own fear and avarice; the Heart tribe being the first to turn to stone (stone hearts representing absence of love, kindness and compassion); the Fang tribe triggering the betrayal (‘fangs’ always linked to snakes that represent the idea of evil and greed); the dragon-shaped river, its water a barrier that the Drunn cannot cross, symbolising the flow of life and if it were to ever dry up then the Drunn would roam freely and cause death; and how trust and forgiveness are the only true tools that can put back together a broken land.
All these messages are reflected through Raya’s story and her actions. Her journey to locate Sisu, the last dragon, and ask her to create a new gem shows a misguided belief that she alone can free her father and the rest of the Heart tribe from petrification. Because she experienced betrayal that resulted in her tribe’s destruction, she trusts no one and hunts for six years trying to locate Sisu. When she finally finds the last dragon, Sisu reveals she cannot make another gem for it was formed through the sacrifice of her four siblings.
Raya decides to then steal back the other four pieces of the original gem and put it back together with Sisu’s help. Along the way she encounters interesting and unique individuals from each tribe who join her on her quest. Still, Raya has trust issues and it is only when they all converge in the tribal lands of Fang, does Raya realise that the true path forward in overcoming the Drunn and healing Kumandra is through forgiveness, love and sacrifice and having heart spine, fang, talon and tail work together (see what the writers did there?)
Plenty of symbolism, none of it subtle, but that does not detract from an enjoyable film for young and old. Disney cannot help themselves from putting in their own touches. For example, for all its Asian cultural references, Sisu’s personality reminded me a bit too much of the genie from Aladdin or Mushu from Mulan. Sisu represents the age-old conscience companion in many Disney flicks (Jiminy Cricket would be proud). Another example, is the need for other way-too-cute characters like Tuk Tuk, who is a cross between an armadillo and a pill bug, that is Raya’s pet, and later grows into her steed and primary mode of transport (I definitely want my own Tuk Tuk). Disney tries to go against type with another too-cute character, Little Noi who Raya meets in Talon. Little Noi is depicted as an infant girl with chubby cheeks and infectious smile but turns out to be a con-artist. The end result is mixed and not entirely effective.
The finale is suitably driven by all that has come before and Raya’s culmination of heartbreak and emotions leading to the revelation that vulnerability and openness are her greatest strengths. Outstanding animation, solid plot, colourful characters and Disney’s trademark soundtrack (it is all orchestral and there are no musical numbers. This was the right decision and the characters are made all the better for it. Thank goodness!) Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy addition into the Disney canon.
8 out of 10