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  Raya and the Last Dragon Trust Beats Stone
Year: 2021
Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk, Gordon Ip, Dichen Lachman, Patti Harrison, Jon Park, Sung Kang, Sierra Katow, Ross Butler, Francois Chau
Genre: Animated, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: When Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) was a little girl, she was trained by her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to fight and protect herself and her people, for he was the ruler of this land, or at least part of it. The place was Kumandra and some years before had been protected by dragons, but when a terrible force arrived there which turned everyone, including the dragons, to stone, it fell into disarray and infighting where it was divided into five parts, all named after pieces of a dragon's body. None of the separate sectors trusted the other, but Benja had a big idea, that they were stronger together, and that he could unite them. Raya liked that idea - but then it went wrong.

Raya and the Last Dragon was a rare, original outing from Disney from an era where it was relying on sequels to sustain its entertainment juggernaut, the franchise still king as far as business models went. Yet they were not so conservative that they would focus on sequel after spin-off as they were with the Marvel and Star Wars brands, and the recent Soul from their Pixar studio had provided both critical and popular admiration, so there was evidently much to be said for trying something new. The big idea this time was that Raya and her location were somewhere in South-East Asia, rather than the China of their live action Mulan, all the better to appeal to a wider, global fanbase.

Of course, there's always someone complaining about Disney and with Raya the issue was that while they had made sure the English language version was cast mostly with Asians, they were Asians from the "wrong" region, and not from South-East Asia. Presumably that would not have been an issue with the dubs in the region in question, but it does show you the pitfalls are all about when a Western movie tries to be inclusive. Yet surely few would have issue with the visuals, as they evoked the folk tales of the land without being completely specific to them, fair enough it was with dragons, which could be a cliche, but in the handling and by having the main dragon voiced by Awkwafina, it was fine.

That's because she had enough of a non-stereotypical personality to make the character sing - not literally, however, as this was one of those Disney toons where nobody did that, another sign that things were moving away from the olden days of the twentieth century, though hearing her get a big number such as Friend Like Me from Aladdin might have been a real treat. Especially as it was apparent this effort was taking notes from what had succeeded before in their canon, and Mulan and Aladdin were blatant influences - another reason for the choice of voice cast may have been to snag the lucrative Chinese market, if you wanted to add a dash of financially savvy conspiracy to the mix. As it was, there was a patchwork quality here that was not entirely unwelcome.

But perhaps the overarching theme was not how greed can tear societies apart, though that point was made when the kingdoms descend into squabbling and cause the turmoil to erupt once again, petrifying great swathes of the population in an Avengers: Endgame type of way, the actual lesson here they wanted to impart was how trust makes the world go round. The character betrayals in Disney cartoons were an overused trope in the twenty-first century productions, suggesting some kind of issues in the writers' rooms, but here was an instance of it being both central to the storyline and offering up a solution instead of demonising a soul who may not be evil, merely misguided and fearful for their status and that of their kin. By the conclusion, which was not exactly a huge surprise, we found out there were no real villains, only those who had allowed their interests to take precedent over the greater good, so it was selfishness that would prove the actual downfall to the world. Think about everyone else as well as yourself, the part you can play, and things might fall into place, was what you took away, and if the narrative didn't quite live up to those lovely visuals, it was a satisfying adventure for all that. Music by James Newton Howard.

[Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon Releases on Digital April 2 and 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD May 18 2021.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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