Disney: RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s got something in his eye.

Feeling a bit locked down, done in, or mentally exhausted after the rigours of 2020?

Feeling broken at the fragmentation and polarity of our politics, or out of hope that we’ll ever come together for a common good again?

Basically, paying attention to the world outside your window?

You’re going to need some Raya And The Last Dragon in your life.

This is pure Disney wholesomeness, but with additional lessons of Pixarian character-journeying. It shows the transition from a state of hopefulness to desolation, and a long fight back from there to hope again. That’s your Pixar-style character lesson. But the emotional wallop of tear-making joy when hope is recovered is underscored by that rich Disney tradition of personal change or resolution bringing change to the whole world. If you’re not sobbing with joy and hope and renewed determination to make the world a better place by the end of this movie, you may already be dead.

The Myth-Building

So what’s it all about?

OK, it’s a kind of alt-Earth, largely inspired by Southeast Asian cultures.

There be dragons on this alt-earth, or Kumandra as it’s called. And the dragons and the humans rub along just fine and dandy, until a third force rises. The Druun are essentially clouds of purple destructive energy that turn any living thing they touch to stone, and multiply when they absorb their life energy. Dragons have always been good at keeping them at bay, but 500 years before the ‘today’ of the main story, the Druun were overrunning Kumandra, so the last of the dragons focused all their magic into a gem, got rid of the Druun altogether, but paid the ultimate price, leaving the dragon gem behind to keep the Druun from Kumandra, while the dragons themselves were turned to stone or perished.

That right there is some heavy backstory. In a sense, it’s the ‘Hobbit’ portion of the movie. Spool forward 500 years, and what you have is a dragon-free Kumandra, no longer worthy of the name, split into five kingdoms, each named after an element of the dragon – Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail.

The Five Kingdoms

The five kingdoms have developed strikingly different reputations, concerns and demands, giving the whole thing an additional Tolkien quality, especially because all the realms mistrust one another. Most of all though, everyone hates Heart, because Heart is where the dragon gem is still kept, by a guardian in each generation, who pretty much assumes leadership of the land.

Everybody wants the gem, and some people are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get it.

The Dream

In the ‘now’ of our tale, the guardian is Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), single parent to young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). When the movie opens, she’s training to become a guardian like her father, and jussssst about manages it. Benja has an almost heretical idea. To talk, to use diplomacy so that the divided lands of Kumandra can come together and be bigger than the sum of their petty self-interests once again, even without living dragons.

When all the nations come together to parley, Raya meets Namaari of Fang, with whom she has a lot in common. Namaari reveals more or less the plot of the rest of the movie when she says a legend in Fang claims that Sisu, the last of the dragons, didn’t die, but instead swam away from the devastation of the Druun, and is sleeping at the end of ‘the river.’

There are, needless to say, a lot of rivers in Kumandra.

The Very Bad Day

We won’t spoil what happens for you…exactly, but suffice it to say that Banja’s a dreamer…and, well, yes, he’s pretty much the only one. By the end of the day, the dragon gem is divided, each nation has a piece of it, but each piece, once divided, is less powerful at warding off the Druun than the whole gem was. Only water and dragon-gem pieces can ward off the Druun and keep you safe.

Spool forward a few years, and we find Raya, trying to find Sisu the dragon, and trying to rescue all the dragon-gem pieces from the various kingdoms. Not because she’s on an idealistic quest to make the world a better place, as such, but because the world is a pretty grim place, and doing something in her generation has to be better than doing nothing and letting the grimness become a state of mind and the accepted way of things.

The Quest

To tell you much more really would stray into spoiler territory, but Raya ends up getting a fellowship together, with odd or misfitting characters from each of the realms joining her on her dragon-gem quest. It’s by no means as easy as that makes it sound – there’s japery, high adventure, significant danger, and fun with (look, this can’t be a spoiler, it’s in the damn title!) a dragon. A dragon, no less, with the voice of Awkwafina, which adds something like an Eddie-Murphy-as-Donkey vibe to the whole piece, but with the one thing missing from the divided world of Kumandra – faith. Not religious faith of course, faith in people. Faith in trust. Faith in making the first move towards a better understanding and a better tomorrow.

But where Disney has learned lessons in recent years is in the development of the character-journey. Time was, when a character was both a) magical, like a dragon, and b) gave a speech about the goodness of human beings and how they should all trust each other, that’d be it – the lead character would have an almost-literal ‘Come to Jesus’ moment, be changed forever, and everyone would live happily ever after.

That’s substantially…not what happens in Raya And The Last Dragon. In fact, there’s betrayal, backstabbery, death, rage and ecological disaster, as humanity’s utter failure to get its world-saving act together means that, unsurprisingly, the world goes almost entirely to hell. If you’re waiting for the movie’s green credentials, that’s where you’ll find them. Without ever overtly shouting its message, Raya And The Last Dragon is a stark warning – keep up our self-revolving, us-first idiocy and our world will be consumed. And then, so will we. Game over.

In fact, Raya loses sight of that idea towards the end, blinded by fury and a desire for revenge while the world goes to hell in a handbasket all around her, and her gang are left to try and be the good in the word, shepherding hapless civilians to safety and out of the path of the now-rampaging Druun.

The Message

And then there’s a moment of clarity, from which the rest of the film unfolds. Self-sacrifice, trust, the end of the world because it’s left too late… and a joyous, pure Disney, pure heart-magic ending that will have you weeping and punching the air and clutching your heart and yelling “See? That’s what we’ve got to do!” as Raya’s world is made almost infinitely better.

Yes, really speaking, the story’s an expanded version of the idea of a roomful of weak and starving prisoners given just one bowl of water, and initially hiding their last food resources to eat in private when no-one else is watching, but ultimately sharing all their food to make a banquet, and then, on the basis of new trust and new energy, breaking free. But it’s a stunningly rendered, absolutely gorgeous screenful of that story, with an epic scope and backgrounds and effects right up there with some of the best our real can offer. You’ll occasionally, while still being engaged in the story, gasp at the vividness of an individual blade of CGI grass, or the movement patterns in hair, or dust, or the bang-on believability of a random bug inserted into the movie more or less to make you go wow.

Peak Disney

The screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim takes very few emotional shortcuts, despite using three time periods, and never lets this feel like a movie that exists just to teach you lessons and squeeze your heartstrings. It will do both of things perfectly well, thank you very much, but really it’s the story of the redemption of one young woman’s hope from the ashes of betrayal. And it absolutely works on that level.

The epic scope is a little more formulaic, but it’s been injected with quite enough newness so you only really care about the formula when you come to write up a review of it – and even then, frankly, not for long.

The characterisations are as joyous as they are varied, and there’s quite the roster of voice acting talent on display here – Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Lucille Soong in a role you’ll swear blind is played by Betty White, and even Alan ‘Funniest guy on TV right now’ Tudyk gets in on the act, his character stealing quite a few scenes through sheer adorability, if never exactly stretching Tudyk’s vocal range.

There are plenty of movies you could pick out as ‘Peak Disney’ from across the company’s long history. But in giving viewers the movie they absolutely need, right at the moment they need it most, you’d have to go a long, long, long way to beat Raya And The Last Dragon to the title. Pure, rewatchable, wholesome, joyous Disney, with messages that get under your skin not through preaching but through empathy with the characters and the world in which they live.

It doesn’t get more ‘Peak Disney’ than that.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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