Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
Disney is arguably the most monopolistic corporation in the entire entertainment industry. Regardless, their power is the result of a steady stream of quality content. Even with the odd misfire, Disney and its subsidiaries reign supreme. While their output includes Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar, it’s their original animated films which truly show off what they can do. Their animated work ruled the cinematic landscape during the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’, but they did lose their footing when the formula became easily detectable. The success of Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) indicates we’re in the middle of a second renaissance, so it’s only a matter of time until the new formula ages. Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) might be showing the first signs of this.
Long ago, an evil force known as the Druun ravaged the land of Kumandra by turning all living beings to stone. Dragons used their power to create a magical orb to repel it, but this causes the dragons to turn to stone themselves. Despite saving the world, the orb instigates a power struggle within Kumandra. 500 years later, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of The Heart tribe has raised his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Trann) to be a guardian of the orb. To broker peace between the kingdoms, Benja invites the other Chieftains to parley. Raya befriends the princess of the Fang kingdom, Namaari (Gemma Chan), but this leads to confrontation which shatters the orb, allowing the Druun to reemerge. Six years later, Raya has been travelling the world in search of Sisu (Awakfina), the dragon who cast the original spell and went down in history as a legendary hero.
There’s quite a lot of ground to cover before the story even kicks off. When looking at their previous work, it’s not uncommon for Disney to create entirely new worlds with entirely fleshed out pre-histories. Raya and the Last Dragon’s world-building eclipses that of Frozen or Moana, establishing an entire universe of different tribes, communities, belief systems, creatures and historical scriptures. The detail is so immense that the film’s prologue needs to quickly cram in centuries of backstory for the audience to clearly follow the coming adventure. It’s a testament to Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim’s script that the information isn’t overwhelming. The delivery of information is so precise that we’re perfectly primed by the time the adventure gets going.
The narrative itself is more than worthy of Disney’s magical legacy, even when it occasionally misses a step. To be clear, there’s no major storytelling flaws, but it’s slightly repetitive due to it feeling like a video game fetch quest. This is when the audience will likely check watch waiting for the next ‘boss battle’. Additionally, The story’s structure lends itself towards action rather than going down musical route. Where you’d usually expect a big song and dance number, we are instead treated to thrilling and beautifully rendered action sequences. While they do individually rival the craftsmanship of live-action films, this is also the cause of the repetition. Disney’s classic musical numbers often forward the narrative thematics and character arcs, which these action sequences can’t completely replicate. Even so, these action scenes are begging to be seen on the big screen.
This isn’t to say Raya and the Last Dragon is without layered storytelling, as there’s definitely plenty to unravel. There’s no time wasted in making the film’s complexities perfectly clear, as there’s very effective analysis of community, trust and unity. Raya’s thematic examination isn’t as surprising as Moana or as nuanced as Zootopia, but it’s still cleanly integrated into the film’s plot. It’s probably only going to read as subtle to viewers below the age of 10, but seeing how the lands of Kumandra both literally and metaphorically come together is still elegantly handled. This thematic structure brings out the best in each character, allowing us to see their individual purpose alongside their function in the bigger picture. Granted, not all the characters are equally deep, but they all get moments to shine by the time we reach the climax.
The third act is of particular note, with all the roads leading to a spectacular finish. The dense world building and complicated plotting pay off in an emotionally stirring fashion, as the climactic battle successfully manages to conjure an apocalyptic tone. Most of the time, the end of the world just never feels like the end of the world because you know the heroes will prevail. Thankfully, Raya and the Last Dragon mostly avoids this pitfall, as it manages to raise the stakes so high that both children and adults will likely be on the edge of their seats. This is of course aided by the gorgeous visuals, which are undoubtedly up to Disney’s industry leading standard. The computer generated imagery is typically detailed, even subtly displaying a style which fits with the East Asian setting. It’s unlikely the studio will ever return to traditional hand drawn animation, but we shouldn’t be too upset if Raya is the standard bearer.
As is also expected, the voice cast is a who’s who of incredibly talented performers. Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong and Alan Tudyk make up the impressive voice cast, but the show belongs to Awkwafina and Kelly Marie Tran as Sisu and Raya respectively. Awkwafina has been a unique presence ever since her debut, and that’s no different here. Her distinctive comic timing makes her the only person capable of portraying the wackily optimistic Sisu. There are even shades of Robin Williams’ Genie from Aladdin (1992) in her work. Happily, Kelly Marie Tran is just as infectious as Raya, a flawed yet compelling hero the audience can see themselves in. Tran was treated poorly in the recent Star Wars trilogy, so it’s a pleasure to see her take the lead in a big way.
Raya and the Last Dragon proves just how well oiled the Disney machinery truly is. We can see the cogs turning at times, but that doesn’t stop the comedy from landing, or the big emotional moments from having an impact. Even through its flaws, Raya and the Last Dragon is able to give us a few new spins on the tried and tested formula, showing there’s still life left in this second renaissance.
Best way to watch it: It’s on Disney Plus, but if you can manage it go on family outing to a (COVID safe) cinema.