Last year amidst the ongoing pandemic, Walt Disney Studios upended their theatrical slate by placing their highly anticipated live action version of Mulan on its streaming service Disney+ at a premium price. It allowed the media behemoth to provide a boost to its upstart streaming service as well as end the cycle of rescheduling release dates over and over. The latest film that Disney has offered on its streaming service under the “Premium Access” tag is Raya and the Last Dragon, an animated film that shares some thematic similarities with Mulan. Raya and the Last Dragon is an absolutely dazzling visual feast of animated brilliance. While Raya and the Last Dragon might be a bit bogged down by its own vast mythology and adherence narrative conventions, it’s still an engaging, thoughtful, and often humorous work of family entertainment.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the mythical land of Kumandra, where dragons and humans lived together in utopian harmony. When a dreaded plague came about that turned people into stone known as Druun, the dragons wielded their immense powers to defeat the evil, sacrificing themselves and leaving behind a powerful gem that keeps the Druun at bay. In the 500 years since, Kumandra has been split into five separate lands – Talon, Fang, Spine, Tail, and Heart. As the leader of Heart, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) trains his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to protect the powerful Dragon Gem that in turn protects the world from the Druun. Chief Benja dreams of reuniting Kumandra and has assembled the tribes to meet in a grand act of diplomacy. However, Raya is betrayed by her youthful counterpart from Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan), in an attempt to steal the gem. The ensuing chaos caused by the selfish factions leads to the shattering of the Dragon Gem, unleashing the Druun once again. Many are turned to stone, including Raya’s noble father.
Years later, the lands of Kumandra have been decimated by the Druun. Raya rides her odd creature Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) through the wastelands searching for a way to bring back the dragons and restore peace and prosperity to Kumandra. The young warrior is able to revive the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). Raya and Sisu must travel to the various regions of Kumandra with the intention of securing each of the broken pieces of the Dragon Gem to dispel the evil and destructive Druun. However, to carry out their mission, they must defeat the destructive force that gives the Druun its power – human selfishness and discord.
Thematically, Raya and the Last Dragon is about the horrors that arise from our divisions and the greatness we can achieve when we work together. Amidst all this constant political in-fighting going on surrounding any conceivable topic – I mean, we’re really gonna pull the Muppets into the culture wars? – a tale of people putting aside their differences and self-interest in order to make sacrifices for the greater good resonates. To be clear, I wouldn’t be surprised if Raya and the Last Dragon got pulled into some kind of culture war fight because Disney is currently a target of scorn, but the reality is that this is an animated kids film that is decidedly inoffensive in every conceivable way, including any concerns about cultural appropriation that, I believe, are deftly sidestepped by placing the film within a mythical setting teeming with mysticism.
The vocal cast of Raya and the Last Dragon delivers some stellar work. Kelly Marie Tran, who has seemingly been relegated to voice work thanks to the efforts of the worst Star Wars fans, provides Raya with her heart and soul through her strong vocal performance. Tran imbues Raya with both a tenderness and a steely determination, making the character one of the more fascinating Disney princesses in a long time. But the real scene stealer is Awkwafina as Sisu. Awkwafina brings a kind of manic energy to Sisu that at times is reminiscent of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin, rattling off jokes with comedic abandon. But when required, the smoky rasp to Awkwafina’s voice is able to convey the sadder, more tender moments that give the film its emotional weight.
What really stands out about Raya and the Last Dragon are its incredible visuals. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, Raya and the Last Dragon has action sequences that put major live action blockbusters to shame. The visual style pays homage to classic wuxia cinema without its homage ever bleeding over into plagiarism. These great action sequences take place in uniquely designed settings, sometimes a desolate wasteland and other times a neon-infused city by the water. Even if the story elements of Raya and the Last Dragon aren’t captivating you, it’s all but impossible not to be wrapped up in the film’s stunning aesthetics.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a technical triumph in every possible facet, simply just eye candy from start to finish. Its script by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (with whom they share a story credit with six other writers) might be a bit too dense with its own mythology for younger viewers to fully follow, but with its resonate moral tale, plenty of effective jokes, and a quickly paced story, even slightly confused younger viewers will get wrapped up in Raya’s adventures. Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t have a handsome prince to save the princess. It doesn’t have the emotional song where Raya belts out her hopes and dreams. Instead you get a story about people setting aside differences to tackle an problem bigger than themselves. Raya and the Last Dragon ushers in a new era of the Disney princess, one where the princesses can kick plenty of butt.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon may feature a dense mythology that could confuse younger viewers, it’s still a marvel of animated action filmmaking, complete with plenty of humor and heart to win over audiences of all ages.