DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang says the new Disney film "Raya And The Last Dragon" is not just for kids. He calls it a gorgeously animated fantasy adventure with a hopeful message for this moment. The movie begins streaming on Disney+ today.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Raya And The Last Dragon" is a lovely, moving surprise. Its big selling point is that it's the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters. But like so many movies that break ground in terms of representation, it tells a story that's actually woven from reassuringly familiar parts. I didn't mind that in the slightest.
The movie, directed by the Disney veteran Don Hall and the animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, brings us into a fantasy world that's been beautifully visualized and populated with engaging characters. And it builds to an emotional climax that I'm still thinking about days later.
The story is a little complicated, as these stories tend to be. It takes place in Kumandra, an enchanted realm inspired by various Southeast Asian cultures and divided into five kingdoms named after a dragon's body parts - Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail.
Before they became extinct centuries ago, dragons once roamed the land and served as friendly guardians to humanity. Their magic lives on in a jewel called the Dragon Gem, which is kept in a cave in Heart. But the other four kingdoms covet its mighty powers. One day, all five factions come together and try to reach a peace agreement, but tensions erupt, a fight breaks out, and the gem shatters into five pieces that are scattered across Kumandra. This opens the doorway to an ancient enemy called the Druun, a terrible plague that turns people to stone.
Naturally, a hero must rise and save the day. Her name is Raya, and she's a young warrior princess from Heart, voiced by the excellent Kelly Marie Tran from "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Raya manages to escape the Druun, though her father, her ba, who's the leader of Heart, isn't so lucky. Now Raya must recover the pieces of the Dragon Gem, reverse the damage and banish the Druun for good.
This isn't the first time we've seen a brave young character embark on a quest for magical baubles, and "Raya And The Last Dragon" is rooted in traditional fantasy lore, with "The Lord Of The Rings" and "Game Of Thrones" being just the most obvious influences. The movie's intense scenes of swordplay and hand-to-hand combat give it a tougher, more grown-up feel than most Disney animated fantasies. My own young daughter had to cover her eyes a few times. Like some other recent Disney princesses, including Moana and Elsa, Raya has a bold, adventurous streak and isn't all that interested in romance. Unlike them, she doesn't even have time to sing a song.
That said, the movie still has plenty of lightness and humor. The screenwriters, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, have provided the usual Disney array of cute critters and lively supporting characters. None of them is more colorful than Sisu, a friendly water dragon who is magically resurrected during Raya's journey. She's the last of her kind, and she has a crucial role to play in the story. She's voiced delightfully by Awkwafina, doing one of her signature chatterbox comedy routines and selling every one of Sisu's anachronistic wisecracks.
In one scene, she touches a piece of the Dragon Gem and magically lights up, which Raya sees as a hopeful sign.
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KELLY MARIE TRAN: (As Raya) You're glowing.
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Oh, thank you. I use aloe and river slim to maintain my...
TRAN: (As Raya) No, no. Look.
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Oh, this - this is my little sister Amba's magic. I got that glow.
TRAN: (As Raya) Your little sister's magic?
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) Yeah. Every dragon has a unique magic.
TRAN: (As Raya) Oh, OK. What's yours?
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I'm a really strong swimmer.
TRAN: (As Raya, laughter) Wait, wait, wait. You touched this gem piece and it gave you powers. You know what this means, right?
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I no longer need a night light?
TRAN: (As Raya) What? No. You're still connected to the gem's magic, and that means you can still use it to save the world. If we can get all the other gem pieces, you can reassemble it...
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) I can reassemble it...
KELLY MARIE TRAN AND AWKWAFINA: (As Raya and Sisu) ...And blow the Druun away.
TRAN: (As Raya) And bring my ba back?
AWKWAFINA: (As Sisu) And bring all of Kumandra back.
CHANG: Raya and Sisu's journey takes them to all five kingdoms of Kumandra, all of which are so vivid and transporting I found myself wishing they really existed - or that I could have at least seen them on a proper movie screen. There's the town of Talon, which is built at the edge of a river, and the desert wasteland of Tail, where Raya and Sisu must enter a cave of obstacles straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure.
As the two of them search for more Dragon Gem pieces, they, of course, pick up a few friends along the way. There's a street-smart boy who cooks a mean shrimp congee and a toddler pickpocket whom I found more creepy than cute. But the movie's most intriguing character is Namaari, a rival princess from Fang, who's voiced by Gemma Chan. As a side note, Chan and Awkwafina both appeared in "Crazy Rich Asians," which, like this movie, was co-written by Adele Lim. Namaari and Raya used to be friends until the fight over the Dragon Gem ripped them apart. Now they're bitter enemies, and their emotional dynamic is fierce and complicated in ways that relationships are rarely allowed to be in children's animated films, especially between women.
By contrast, Sisu is all feel-good vibes. She's a dragon, after all, with little understanding of how treacherous humans can be. She doesn't get why Raya and Namaari distrust each other so, why they can't just set their differences aside and defeat the Druun together. It's Sisu's sincerity and purity of heart that makes the story's finale so unexpectedly stirring, especially now. Our fates are closely bound together, it reminds us, as it builds a case for forgiveness, reconciliation and mutual sacrifice.
The emotional power of "Raya And The Last Dragon" sneaks up on you. Its lessons aren't new exactly, but it makes you feel like you're learning them for the first time.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times.
On Monday's show, we speak with Walter Isaacson. His new book is about discoveries related to RNA, the molecule at the heart of the gene-editing tool CRISPR, which is being used in the fight against genetic diseases. RNA is also the basis of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines. Isaacson was part of a double-blind clinical study of the Pfizer vaccine. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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