Editor’s Note: This is a spoiler-free review of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON. Any plot-related details have been revealed in trailers.
When I heard that Walt Disney Animation Studios was going to be adapting a film with a dragon in it, I became excited. As anyone knows about me, I am a fiend when it comes to magical creatures. Throw in the added knowledge that the film was going to be influenced by Southeast Asian cultures, a region of Asia that more should pull inspiration from and study more in my opinion, and I was 110% on board. Now, with the arrival of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON coming this week, I have to say that it didn’t disappoint. While the film itself may be critiqued due to a lack of songs, the visual style, overall animation, storyline, and vocal performances come together almost seamlessly. It highlights a complexity and much-needed heart that feels like necessary viewing in this time of great division. Needless to say, the timing is impeccable.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is the latest from Walt Disney Animation Studios, with Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada directing, and with Paul Briggs and John Ripa co-directing. Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are the writers on the project. The film features an outstanding voice cast, including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, and Ross Butler.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON takes its audience into the Southeast Asian-inspired fantasy world of Kumandra. 500 years prior to the events of the film, dragons and humans lived in harmony. One day, however, the Druun came and spread like a plague, turning all living things it touched into stone. In a final act of defiance against the Druun, Sisu, the dragon, merged magic into a gem that blasted the Druun away and restored those humans who had been so horribly cursed by these monstrous creatures. However, while human beings were restored, the dragons did not return. All that was left of Sisu’s legacy was the magical gem she used to defeat the Druun. One would think that this act would have restored peace between human beings, but it did not. Instead, it divided tribe against tribe, splintering Kumandra into individual factions.
We are then introduced to Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and her father, Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim), the leader of the Heart Tribe. Benja is determined to mend the tensions between the other fractured tribes: Tail, Spine, Talon, and – the least trustworthy of all – the Fang Tribe. One thing leads to another and soon the dragon gem, the artifact that Raya’s tribe has protected for centuries, is desecrated. Shattered into pieces by the rivaling tribes, the Druun arise once more and decimate the lands and people. With humanity’s survival in peril, Raya’s only hope now hinges on finding the last dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), and bring the shattered gem pieces together in order to repair the world that humanity has – essentially – broken. Along the way, Raya will learn essential, yet difficult life lessons that many of us need to remember as well as we make our way through our own recovering world.
One of the biggest regrets I had after completing RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is that so many will not be able to see the exquisite detail work of the animation on a big screen. When the film was in production, no one could have anticipated that we would have gone through and would still be recovering from a pandemic that would render the theatrical viewing experience unsafe. With all that said, the animation work is exquisite. There are layers and textures to the stonework, water movement, and more that pop out even when you are least expecting it. Knowing how much work went into even the most minute of details showcases how the film’s animation team creates visual eye candy for the viewer.
Speaking of visual eye candy, the visual designs of the characters, costumes, and settings featured in the film are distinctive. Each tribe has a visual essence that helps the viewer transition between each land Raya visits on her journey. For a fantasy piece like this, I’d argue that these distinct visuals are an absolute necessity regardless of whether the visual work is animated or not. The research conducted by the animation team shines the brightest here and, for those familiar with the individual Southeast Asian nations referenced in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, there will be plenty of details – both big and small – to take in.
The vocal performances delivered by the cast are great, though with definite standouts. Kelly Marie Tran captures the audience as the complex, multifaceted Raya. Bearing the burden of trying to repair the world, we hear a woman struggling with pride and deeply engrained trust issues. It makes it all the more believable as tensions raise throughout the course of the film. Awkwafina slays it vocally as Sisu, clearly having fun with her performance as the more positive, trusting dragon bent on restoring Kumandra. Benedict Wong’s Tong is cozy, yet fierce. Paternal, yet commanding. Izaac Wang is an absolute joy as Boun, capturing the brightness of youth but is able to weigh the emotional complexities and maturity of the character when required later on in the film. It should be noted that, while the casting did not impact the vocal performances themselves, it would have been nice to have seen more inclusion of Southeast Asians in the cast given the clear inspiration of the region’s influence on RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON.
Unlike Disney animated films released in recent years, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON does not have any vocal numbers. This may prove to be a detriment for some viewers as there is a general expectation going into Disney animated features to have musical numbers, especially with the massive success of Frozen in the previous decade. However, does this film necessarily need vocal numbers? Given how the story plays out, I don’t necessarily believe the film needed it, especially given that the emotional weight of the film might have been lost if added musical sequences weren’t handled impactfully. However, I acknowledge that this particular element and its inclusion may just be a matter of personal preference to some viewers.
To wrap things up, I want to talk about the thematic material featured in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON because it does feel like it’s arrived just on time for both kids and adults alike. There are a multitude of themes – both subtle and more pronounced – interwoven into the screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. While the screenplay itself isn’t perfect (there are some moments that might seem too convenient or nudged in), there is a maturity in the execution of themes that just works. In particular, the discussion of empathy towards understanding other’s actions. But also, I really appreciated how the discussion of personal responsibility was handled because it highlights how no one is just evil. Everyone has a part to play in how the world operates and how pivotal events come to play out on both a micro and macro level. The timeliness of this particular lesson seems more pronounced given recent world events. And, for parents who want to try to explain such lessons to their children, the film handles it in such a simple and subtle way that showcases the quality of the writing.
Overall, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is almost sheer perfection. There’s a heart and maturity to the film that feels much needed. While there are no songs, which has become a staple of Disney animated films, adding songs might have taken away from the impact the film has as is. From the visual designs to the animation and to the vocal performances, there is so much to love and take in from the film. For both adults and children, there is so much to take in from this film that feels like a soothing balm of hope in our own broken world. And, as such, I can’t recommend this latest animated film from Walt Disney Animation Studios enough.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets, at the same time as it is released in theaters on March 5, 2021. Premier Access for the title will be priced at $29.99.