Raya and the Last Dragon Review
Cultures throughout human history have been able to unite around a simple fact: Dragons. Are. Awesome. Raya and the Last Dragon takes inspiration from Southeast Asian culture to tell the story of Raya, a battle-hardened princess fighting to unite the divided land of Kumandra. The movie is Walt Disney Animation’s first original feature film since Moana in 2016.
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the mythical land of Kumandra, which is divided between five tribes, all seeking to gain power after the last receptacle of magic, the dragon orb, is split between the kingdoms. The story opens with a wonderfully animated intro that explains why the kingdoms are divided, and it uses the opening act to further characterize these sides into the unique personalities we see throughout the film. Raya and the Last Dragon has a relatively fast pace, which may be off-putting to some, but personally, I enjoy it, as it allows the viewer to experience a floating city, an abandoned frozen village, a defensive fortress, and more all in the same movie. The story seamlessly implements Southeast Asian culture into its tale, such as how Raya inherits her father’s kris, an Indonesian dagger known for its asymmetrical design. With elements like these, Raya and the Last Dragon tells a culturally accurate story.
The protagonists of Raya and the Last Dragon are, well, Raya and the Last Dragon, Sisu. Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, sets a new tone for Disney princesses as a take-no-prisoners princess with nothing to lose. As viewers, we have the chance to see Raya grow from a naïve 12-year-old to a battle-hardened warrior of Kumandra. Raya grows to learn from her mistakes, but the best moments in her character arc showcase her response when she fails her people. Awkwafina stars as the last dragon Sisu, and she delivers an impactful (and expressive!) performance when it matters most. Some argue that Awkwafina didn’t do enough to bring the character of Sisu to life, but she brings out a strong balance of emotionally empowering and adventurous energy to the film. The main antagonist is princess Namaari who grows up as a foil to Raya. The cast largely revolves around Raya, Sisu, and Namaari, but the rest of the supporting cast has enjoyable moments in their own respective scenes.
Throughout the movie, Raya and the Last Dragon has top-notch, modern animation. The scenes blend fantasy elements with highly-detailed environments and character designs. My favorite moment occurred when Sisu first flew through the sky, dancing across the screen with ease. At this moment, I could see each individual strand of Sisu’s fur fluttering with the wind. The film also has an abundance of fight scenes, each of which excels in both extending the story and being entertaining. The score of the movie is another standout feature, led by award-winning composer James Newton Howard.
Raya and the Last Dragon does a lot well, but it’s far from a perfect product. The clearest criticism is that it moves too fast to fully digest the character motivations and plot developments. The plot follows a typical MacGuffin quest that gets somewhat repetitive, and since the film is two hours long, the story only gets about 20 minutes to address each region’s shard piece while also fleshing out Raya’s background. Another area of criticism is Raya’s character arc. Raya is headstrong and set in her ways...until suddenly she’s not. While the story shows her development, she skips some of the most important transition steps, and it’s hard to believe that she changes her worldview with a single conversation.
It would be a shame not to also mention Us Again, the outstanding Animated Short that precedes the film. The short explores an elderly couple dealing with the melancholy of aging while feeling nostalgic for “the good ol’ days” when they were young and spry. The short is a masterclass in storytelling through music, without dialogue. It’s an emotional short that is sure to tug at your heartstrings!
Raya and the Last Dragon is an amazing product that everyone should watch. Although a price of $30 on Disney+ is a bit high, I’d encourage anyone to either safely watch it in theaters, put together a socially distanced watch party to help split the cost of viewing, or wait until June 4th to watch it for free on Disney+. Raya and the Last Dragon is not your typical Disney movie. Don’t expect a fairytale musical, but instead look forward to an action-packed, culturally relevant film that will address themes of unity, militarism, and trust.