by Melvin Twigg Mason
The latest animated offering from Walt Disney Studios is “Raya and The Last Dragon,” and it is a brilliant example of the current (and wonderful!) state-of-the-game in animation. With producers that include thespians Daniel Dae Kim (“The Good Doctor,” “Lost”) and Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Killing Eve”), this hour-and-45-minute film provides something for just about everyone, and actually has a timely message about caring for our fellow man.
The storyline takes us back to an ancient (& fictitious) Asian land known as Kumandra, a land of magical dragons where everyone lives in peace and plenty with their neighboring provinces. Until the Drudes came. These disembodied creatures wreak havoc across the region, fighting the dragons and sucking the life force out of everyone they encounter, leaving them as stone statues. The only thing that can stop the Drudes is a powerful gem, created by the dragons, that was broken into pieces and scattered among the different provinces. Our heroine, Raya (voiced to perfection by Kelly Marie Tran), takes up the mission to find the last known dragon and reconstitute the gem, knowing that it will drive away the Drudes and reunite the people of Kumandra.
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and Don Hall, “Raya and The Last Dragon” has a fully-loaded plot, with sub-stories about the importance of love and unity as well as the destructive nature of divisiveness and mistrust. One pivotal scene shows Raya faced with a decision of whether to trust her naive friend Sisu the dragon (voiced by Awkwafina) or draw her blade against longtime nemesis, Namaari, played by Gemma Chan (“Humans,” “Crazy Rich Asians”). The wrong choice could cost her the whole world — literally! Indeed, there were several moments as the film drew to a close that were poignant and heart-wrenching, or heartwarming, depending on your point of view. I found myself fighting back the tears a couple of times!
The animation is the best I’ve ever seen — the characters are not overly fantasized, their bodily movements realistic. Their hair & makeup are not cartoonish, and the costuming is breathtaking. The rain and wet streets are VERY believable; the “lighting” angles & hues, flawless. Even the edge-of-your-seat fight choreography, both with fists and swords, was spine-tingling enough to rival many live-action counterparts. The original music (by James Newton Howard) is both majestic and warm and playful and sinister, as needed. The closing theme song (“Lead The Way”), is well-written and beautifully sung by Jhené Aiko, and clearly drives home the film’s message of trust and understanding.
If ever there was a time that we needed a strong message on the importance of coming together as one people, regardless of race or geography or class, this is the time, America is the geography, and this movie has the message! And the sweet irony of the timing of its release is that this message is coming from a predominantly Asian-American cast & film crew, including its many animators. “Raya and The Last Dragon” is a must-see for everyone. I would be surprised if it doesn’t gain some Oscar nods, in several categories.