‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is film with thoughtful, some mixed messages
NEW YORK – The lively and colorful animated adventure "Raya and the Last Dragon" (Disney) teaches viewers that trust is the necessary basis of peaceful coexistence while showcasing the ills produced by greed and aggression. Yet it also includes quasi-religious behavior that might confuse impressionable viewers.
Well-catechized teens, by contrast, will easily shrug off such elements. They will also be proof against scenes that might frighten little kids.
Extensive exposition introduces us to a world made up of five territories that were once united but are now in violent conflict. This turmoil has partly been brought about by a dark supernatural force that, among other evil doings, has turned many of the inhabitants of these domains into stone statues. This negative power was once held in check by benevolent dragons, but they have since disappeared.
To defeat this baleful energy, the teen of the title (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) sets out on a quest. Her first goal is to locate Sisu (voice of Awkwafina), a fire breather who, according to legend, lives on in hiding.
After that, Raya hopes, with Sisu's help, to reunite the fragments of a magical gem that, once made whole again, will restore peace and revive the petrified, including Raya's beloved dad, Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim). Along the way, the duo enlists the aid of, among others, a young mariner named Boun (voice of Izaac Wang) and Tong (voice of Benedict Wong), a fearsome but good-hearted warrior.
Betrayed, early on, by Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan), a peer from a rival realm she had tried to befriend, Raya has trouble putting faith in anyone. But Sisu stoutly insists that the risk involved in showing confidence in others will ultimately reap rewards.
Driven, in large measure, by the energy with which Awkwafina infuses innocent, lighthearted and ever-enthusiastic Sisu, co-directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada's film rollicks along, adding an anti-violence message and a story of redemption to its other lessons. Yet, as scripted by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the movie depicts forms of worship and displays of reverence alien to Biblical norms.
At one point, for instance, Tong addresses Sisu as "divine dragon." And the human characters not only make gestures of respect toward her, they fall on their knees both in front of Sisu and before the pieces of the mystical jewel as well. In another sequence, Raya and her companions hold flowers up to their foreheads before dropping them into the water in a way that suggests they're engaged in a religious rite.
Tots unable to interpret such actions properly might also be scared by various images in the movie as well as by the peril in which the good guys frequently find themselves. But those who can successfully assign any non-Judeo-Christian spirituality to the fictional, strongly Asian-accented setting in which the picture is set will appreciate the positive secular values it upholds.
The film contains nonscriptural practices, stylized combat, including swordplay and martial arts fighting, potentially frightening sights and childish scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG – parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.