Raya and the Last Dragon: Good fun with cute critters

Review: Awkwafina has crafted a spirited sidekick worthy of inclusion in a pantheon

Raya and the Last Dragon
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Director: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Cert: Club
Genre: Animation
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk
Running Time: 1 hr 54 mins

Raya is a lone warrior with a mission. “My whole life, I trained to become a guardian of the Dragon Gem,” she says. “But this world has changed, and its people are divided. Now to restore peace, I must find the Last Dragon. My name is Raya.” For good measure, we flashback to earlier times, when Raya lived happily with her father before warring tribes and an evil force known as the Druun transformed her people into stone.

Venturing away from her native Heart Lands, Raya and her animal sidekick Tuktuk – an armadillo thingy that doubles as a motorcycle – go in search of the last dragon, Sisu, a fuzzy goofball capable of transforming into a human and voiced by Awkwafina. Along the way, the lone warrior princess reluctantly acquires various accomplices including a 10-year-old boating entrepreneur, a gang of monkeys led by a human baby, and a giant (Benedict Wong) who turns out to be of the gentle persuasion.

Their rather complicated quest to reassemble a dragon stone and restore their fossilised loved ones to normal inevitably requires a showdown between Raya and her lifelong enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan), the rival warrior princess daughter of the Fang clan.

It’s good fun. The critters are cute. The landscapes are burnt orange dystopian or pretty and pink. The action sequences – some utilising the Philippines’ national martial art, arnis – are staged with aplomb. The central conceit, however, feels unwieldy.

And no wonder, with four directorial credits – including Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and López Estrada, who helmed the critically acclaimed Sundance hit Blindspotting. There are, additionally, eight story credits underpinning the screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians scribe Adele Lim. So if it sometimes feels like a film that was carefully assembled by a committee, that’s because it was. A life lesson about trusting others feels as slick, synthetic and effective as James Newton Howard’s score.

The 59th film to emerge from Walt Disney Studios was criticised for including more east Asian cast members than southeast Asian actors. That’s hardly fair. The multicultural cast is led by Star Wars’ Vietnamese-American star Kelly Marie Tran and features everyone from the Scottish-Chinese Benedict Wong to the Asian-American rapper Dumbfoundead. The film-makers collaborated with a Lao visual anthropologist and Gamelan musicians from Indonesia. Qui Nguyen is Vietnamese-American, Adele Lim is Malaysian-American, and the head of story, Fawn Veerasunthorn is Thai-American.

More importantly, strict geographical casting would have robbed the viewer of Awkwafina’s turn as Sisu. The American comedian, who can boast Chinese and Korean heritage, has crafted a spirited sidekick worthy of inclusion in a pantheon that features Robin Williams in Aladdin and Eddie Murphy in Mulan.