[Screen It]


(2021) (voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina) (PG)

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Computer-Animated Fantasy/Action-Adventure: A young warrior sets out to find a dragon she hopes can help her reunite broken pieces of a powerful gem that will vanquish the evil that's overrun her world and help reunite her land's divided people.

Long ago, almost everyone in the land of Kumandra got along and lived peacefully. But then mindless monster entities known as the Druun descended on the land and wreaked havoc everywhere, destroying property and turning any living beings they encountered into stone.

Thankfully, the land's dragons banded together to form a powerful gem that destroyed the Druun and reversed the stone spell for all. That is, except for the dragons. With them gone, the people of Kumandra turned on each other and split into various warring factions and the Lands of Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail, all wanting the gem for themselves.

It's remained hidden for the past 500 years, thanks to the efforts of Heart ruler Chief Benja (voice of DANIEL DAE KIM) and his many ancestors. Now, his teenage daughter, Raya (voice of KELLY MARIE TRAN), has been added to the lineage and with her training, she's certain to keep the gem protected for another generation.

But at a gathering of all the lands, she makes the mistake of showing the gem to fellow teenager Namaari (voice of GEMMA CHAN), the princess daughter of Virana (voice of SANDRA OH) who leads Fang. In the resultant scuffle between forces on both sides, the gem ends up broken, once again releasing the Druun which sends everyone fleeing for their homelands with a piece of the stone. It also leaves Chief Benja frozen in stone and Raya determined to reverse that situation.

Legend has it that if someone can find the water dragon Sisu (voice of AWKWAFINA) and put all the gem pieces back together, the Druun will again be defeated and those turned to stone returned to normalcy. Now six years later, Raya -- on her loyal and humongous armadillo-pill bug steed known as Tuk Tuk -- is still searching, as is Namaari for her.

Raya ends up unleashing Sisu who's initially unaware of the passage of time and they begin a journey together that ultimately has them running into toddler Noi (voice of THALIA TRAN) and her thieving trio of monkey thieves; pre-teen Boun (voice of IZAAC WANG) who runs a restaurant on his boat that he keeps on the water to avoid the Druun; and Tong (voice of BENEDICT WONG), the last warrior of his land.

Despite their initial differences and seeing Namaari and her warriors as their common enemy, they band together to find and reunite the stone pieces, vanquish the Druun and free those frozen in stone.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10

When it comes to movies, some are timely in that they touch on current-day issues but do so without hammering viewers over the head with their messaging. Others are timeless in that despite that first characteristic (that nonetheless sometimes still applies over subsequent generations of viewers) they still hold up and deliver the goods over the following years and decades.

The best such cinematic offerings are both timely and timeless, and while the latter can only be assessed far down the cinematic timeline into the future, "Raya and the Last Dragon" certainly seems to have what it takes to be considered for both.

The 59th animated offering from Disney, it's a tremendous piece of work that's engaging, rousing, funny, entertaining, is gorgeous to behold, and delivers an important message, especially in our politically and socially divided times. Yes, we're still quite early into 2021, but one might be hard-pressed to find a better animated offering this year.

The film -- from co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim-- begins with our titular protagonist (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) riding through and commenting on her dystopian existence while riding what looks like a mix of something from the "Star Wars" and "Mad Max" universes (it's actually a giant armadillo-pill bug combo that when rolled up acts like a giant and armored one-wheel vehicle).

She then informs us of the past where the land was once known as Kumandra where friendly dragons protected and provided for all. But then mindless, hellscape monsters known as the Druun (fiery storms of energy and who knows what else) attacked and turned people to stone. The dragons made a last-ditch effort and combined their powers to create a magic gem that defeated the monsters and restored life to those stuck in stone. That is, except for the dragons.

Now, 500 years later, Raya's family has continued to be protectors of that stone in the land of Heart (Kumandra splintered into distinct lands named after body parts of the dragons) and she's graduated training by her leader father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), to join in that long line.

But she mistakes the friendliness of a fellow teen and fellow dragon lover, Namaari (Gemma Chan), who alerts her people about the stone. All hell breaks loose, the gem is broken, the Druun reappear, and nearly everyone is stoned, so to speak, once again, including Raya's father.

Which brings us to the present-day story set six years after that where Raya has been on the hunt ever since to find the missing gem pieces as well as a legendary mystical dragon known as Sisu that she believes will help her right the world and free her father. She ends up rousing the dragon from its sleep, but when we hear her voice (provided by Awkwafina in some fun line reading), we quickly realize -- as does Raya -- that this might not be the dragon she's looking for, or at least expected.

And thus begins their journey together through the lands, collecting orphans and survivors along the way -- including an unlikely one in a toddler (Thalia Tran) and her trio of thieving monkeys -- who not only help her on her quest, but become her default family. Along the way, they must contend with Namaari who likewise wants to get her hands on the gem pieces and Sisu for her own people.

While not entirely original, the offering feels fresh and is engaging from start to finish, with well-rounded characters (even the ones who appear just as comedy sidekicks get some profound moments) and plenty of entertainment for viewers of all ages.

All while touching on thematic elements such as loss, trust, and healing a divided nation, something most of us can relate to in our unsettling times, but without ever feeling preachy or heavy-handed in doing so. Vocal work is superb from all involved and the film's visuals are astonishing to behold.

Timely and timeless like the best of them, "Raya and the Last Dragon" is another animated classic from Disney. It rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed March 1, 2021 / Posted March 5, 2021

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