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Disney+ Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

March 4, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s 59th official animated film, has some of the hallmarks of a Disney Princess movie, while also feeling like somewhat of a departure for the studio. Not only is this their first film to feature a Southeast Asian Princess, there are also no musical numbers here, no male love interests, and a more muted colour palate.

The film, which is co-directed by the unlikely duo of Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), instead plays out as a fast-paced mix of action, adventure, and fantasy set in the fictional land of Kumandra. And the Princess at the centre of it, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), gives off more of a lone warrior vibe than a traditionally regal one.

As the legend goes, five hundred years ago, Kumandra was one land that formed the shape of a dragon, where people lived in harmony with the creatures. Then a dark, monstrous force known as the Druun came and ravaged the land, turning people into statues. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans, with the mighty dragon Sisu concentrating all of her powers into a magical gem. This caused Kumandra to break into five warring clans (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail), as they all fought for control of the gem.

Heart has been guarding the dragon’s gem ever since, causing the other tribes to become jealous, seeing it as the source of their prosperity. This backstory is nicely laid out in a stylized sequence at the start of the film, which is narrated by our protagonist Raya. Raya was raised in Heart by her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who dreams of bringing the different clans together and reuniting Kumandra. But when the gem breaks and each clans take a piece, the world is once again plunged into darkness. Raya must set out on a journey across the different lands to awaken Sisu (Awkwafina) and find all the pieces, in order to restore balance.

The jaded Raya and the easygoing Sisu, who has the power to take human form, provide great foils for each other, and their personality differences provide the basis for the film’s main message about trusting one another. Sisu is very trusting of people, where as Raya goes by the mantra of “trust no one,” and the biggest life lesson is about finding a balance between the two. I really enjoyed the interplay between the two characters, and both voice actors do a very good bringing them to life. Tran’s portrayal of Raya feels fully fleshed out, and Awkwafina, who has a great voice for animation, does really enjoyable work here as well. Sisu is a really fun and appealing character, and Awkwafina’s voice matches her perfectly.

The animation itself is quite impressive, including some gorgeous landscapes of the different lands that make up Kumandra. The action sequences, which are one of the standout elements of the film, are quite well choreographed, offering a solid mix of martial arts, swordplay, and hand-to-hand combat. The film also blends in Indiana Jones-style adventure sequences and heist movie elements, including a cool opening that involves Raya infiltrating a cave. The action is all accompanied by a sweeping, Asian-influenced musical score by James Newton Howard.

One of the film’s most engaging subplots involves a bitter rivalry between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior from Fang and the daughter of Chief Virana (Sandra Oh), who started off as friends, before an act of betrayal turned them into enemies. Raya’s journey also allows her to interact with a variety of supporting characters, including Boun (Izaac Wang), an entrepreneurial boy from Tail who lives on a boat selling shrimp; Tong (Benedict Wong), a lone warrior from Spine; and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a “con baby” from Talon who steals things with her band of monkeys. These side character aren’t quite as fleshed out as they could have been, and Little Noi feels a bit out of place.

There are also a few bits of humour in Raya and the Last Dragon don’t quite land, including a scene involving farting beetles, which leads to some odd tonal shifts. And the story, for all of the lore that it lays out in the opening scenes, feels slightly underdeveloped. The plot itself is somewhat familiar and predictable, and seems a bit cobbled together from different sources. For example, the quest for the gem pieces heavily recalls the Infinity Stones in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter franchise.

The film also doesn’t go as deep as it could have into exploring the disparity between the different lands that make up Kumandra, whose people have been left wanting while Heart has thrived, and the choice to cast a character from the most privileged nation as the protagonist feels somewhat simplistic. There was an opportunity to do something more interesting here, like how Frozen II tackled colonialism, but the film doesn’t really go into deeper messages.

All in all, Raya and the Last Dragon is a good movie, not a great one, and the fact that this will be read as criticism shows just how spoiled we have become with the high quality of the output from Walt Disney Animation Studios. For me, it lacked a bit of the spark that gives many other Disney movies their staying power, but it still offers a solid mix of adventure and fantasy that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. It’s a fast-moving and consistently engaging film that audiences both young and old can find enjoyment in.

And in an age of blind partisanship, when people would rather feel they are right rather than turn around and work with someone from a warring tribe, Raya and the Last Dragon does hold a valuable message about trust and how important a force it can be in order to truly bring about healing. It’s a good life lesson to go along with the film’s entertaining action sequences and character moments.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be available to rent for $34.99 on Disney+ with Premier Access as of March 5th, and is also being released in selected theatres where they are open.

The very charming and poignant new animated short film Us Again will be playing before the film in theatres, before being released on Disney+ in June.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ann permalink
    March 4, 2021 8:53 pm

    Thanks for the review. I always look to see what you think of a film to know if i would enjoy it or not. Good job.


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