Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) Review
POIGNANT, FUN, AND
Walt Disney Studios have always been at the forefront of being one of the leading animation studios in children’s entertainment. Throughout the years, the studios have produced a multitude of memorable and quality made animated feature films that dazzled and spellbound generations of moviegoers. In the past decade (roughly the beginning of 2010s), Disney has seeing a resurgence of its own signature identity, with the company returning to the cartoon roots of strong-willed princesses, colorful sidekick characters, and musically charged songs. Such examples of the studio’s past definitely paid off, with a somewhat “second renaissance” with several animated features like Tangled, Frozen, and Moana being prime examples of the company’s identity. Still, Disney has also produced several animated endeavors that have broken away from that classic moniker of storytelling (in a good way) with features like Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Now, two years after the release of Frozen II, Walt Disney Studios and directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada release Disney’s 59th animated feature film with the movie Raya and the Last Dragon. Does this spirted adventure cartoon soar high or does it hit a sour note and fall from grace?
In ancient times, in the world of Kumandra, an evil and enigmatic beings known as the Druun were unleashed upon the land; causing chaos everywhere and turning everything they touch into stone. With the land ravages by this blight, the only thing that could defeat the Druun was the arcane power of dragon magic, with the last of the mythical beings, Sisu (Awkwafina), managing to stop the darkness with the concreated power of a special gem. 500 years later, Kumandra is now divided into five realms, with the nation of Heart, led by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who acts as the keeper of the Sisu’s Dragon Gem, teaches his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), ways of defense while dreaming of reuniting the land once more. When hope for peace are dashed after Namaari (Gemma Chan) betrays Raya for the people of Fang, the gem is shattered, with each realm claiming a piece to help ward off the Druun. Six years later, Raya sets out to fix the gem, traveling across the fragmented land with help from her pet companion Tuk Tuk, entering enemy territory as she attempts to fulfill her father’s vision of unity.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I’ve said many times before in my past reviews, I’ve always been a big fan of Disney movies. Always have and always will. There’s definitely a high value quality (for the most part) that the studio gives when developing their animated feature films; producing some of the best and most memorable cartoon movies in the history of animated endeavors. Perhaps I like their movies because they pioneered ones of their classic staples of Disney’s animated movies signature identities, with a major focus on princesses, quality animation, humorous side kick characters, a large emphasis story / narration, and musical songs scattered throughout the movie. As I mentioned, this has been Disney’s “bread and butter” for a great majority of the well-known animated films and that have stuck with over the years in some shape or form. The beginning of the 2010s era saw an almost resurgence of their iconic signature of animated storytelling, especially after the release of 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, with the “House of Mouse” wanting to create their second renaissance of cartoon feature films. This is especially noticeable in Tangled, Frozen, and Moana; finding the studio recalling back their memorable and beloved hits from the past, while trying to connect to its new viewers. On this front, I love this idea and those movies that I mentioned. That’s not to say that Disney isn’t afraid to tackle other animated projects that require princesses and musical numbers, with Big Hero 6 stepping into the foray of superheroes comic books and Ralph Breaks the Internet delving into modern day usage of surfing the “world wide web. Thus, while other animated studios can offer amusing distractions and some memorable hits along the way, its safe to say that Walt Disney Studios has been and will continue to be one of the powerhouse studios of animated children entertainment for the foreseeable future….and I think that’s a good thing.
Naturally, this brings me to talking about Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest fantasy adventure cartoon movie and their 60th animated project in their respected cannon. After the company released Frozen II back in 2019, I was definitely curious to see where Disney’s next animated film will go. Is it going to be another sequel (something that Disney is quite known for) or is it going to be a whole new endeavor? Thankfully, the latter was going to be leading premise for Raya and the Last Dragon, which seemed to embrace the idea of southeast Asia as well as fantasy-esque style of adventure. From the film’s movie trailer alone, it looked like the film was going to be something a bit different; styled and set in the fashion of a more robust and energetic and something different from its classic moniker of princesses and musical numbers. Still, the film’s animation looked great and the setup for the film looked intriguing. Thus, I was looking forward to seeing Raya and the Last Dragon, which was originally scheduled to be released on November 25th, 2020. However, due to the on-going events of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney shifted Raya and the Last Dragon to March 2021, with the movie being simultaneously released in theaters as well as being released on their Disney+ streaming service (with home premium price tag like what they did with 2020’s Mulan). So, despite my love of actually going to the movies, I decided to check out the movie in the comforts of my home and watched over this past weekend on Disney+. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few minor problems, Raya and the Last Dragon is another successful hit from the “House of Mouse” with a solid story, fun characters, and beautiful animation. It may not beat out some of the studio’s memorable big hits, but it happily joins the ranks of those greats.
Raya and the Last Dragon is directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada as well as being co-directed by Paul Briggs and John Ripa. From a quartet of directors working on one particular animated project, the idea of “too many cooks in the kitchen” comes to mind and almost seems like that the movie itself would be a “give or take” of a hodgepodge of creative ideas. Thankfully, this is not the case, with the four directors seeming to work together with one clear vision for the feature and makes Raya and the Last Dragon enjoyable as one coherent feature. Interestingly, all the directors on the film have been a part of Disney’s animated films in some shape or form in various departments (i.e., directors, animation heads, storyboard artists, and script writers, etc.). Thus, their past affiliation with Disney bolsters their efforts made on Raya and the Last Dragon and seem to focus on the studio’s identity and themes. Speaking of identity, the directors (something I will be calling the four collaborations of director from Hall, Estrada, Briggs and Ripa in my review) seem to create an almost hybrid iteration of Disney’s signature identity that both speaks to its past collection of work as well as making new strides for the more modern trend of today’s world. What do I mean? Well, the film makes Raya (the main character of the feature) is a princess, but she’s much more capable than more of the Disney princesses of the past. Unlike the majority of the Disney movies (like recent hits Frozen and Moana), who’s main character undergoes a transformation / discovery of their power throughout the course of the film, the directors make Raya already a skilled individual. She’s brave, fearless, and quite a skilled warrior already. Additionally, unlike the title character in Moana, Raya is a bit more jaded and has trust issues with newcomer around; acting as more of loner, with the film slowly building a surrogate family around her (more on that below). Altogether, the directors of Raya and the Last Dragon keep a lot of what makes a Disney animated movie left intact, but are able to morph it and maintain something that feels a bit more refreshing a meaningful throughout.
What Raya and the Last Dragon is omitting from Disney’s signature musical numbers / songs that the studio is well-known for, but makes up for it within its expansive setting (more on that below) as well as in its action. The latter provides plenty of it, with the quartet of directors staging a plethora of action sequences for Raya and her companions to face, with most being executed / choregraphed in a exciting (and almost realistic) way. This gives the film the action-oriented notion, which provides plenty of fun and unique entertainment to keep the feature feeling exciting right from the get-go. Thus, there is almost a spiritual influence to Disney’s 1998 Mulan that the directors of Raya and the Last Dragon utilize that, while not carbon copy, does have familiar feeling, but in a good way. Because of this, the character of Raya is perhaps the closest action oriented to the character of Mulan. Overall, while the movie might not have a big “Let it Go” musical number, the film makes up for it within its fast-paced action sequences.
Story-wise, Raya and the Last Dragon is an adventure story, with the film taking us (the viewers) on a journey throughout the once united, yet now shattered lands of Kumandra as Raya’s journey unfolds. Collectively, the film is very rich within its own world-building and that’s definitely one of the biggest draws (at least to me) in the movie, with the directors and the feature’s script, which was done by a plethora of writers, including Hall, Estrada, Briggs, and Ripa as well as Adele Lin, Qui Nguyen, Kiel Murray, and Dean Wellins. Again, while that ideas of so many involved in shaping the feature’s story can lead to some creative troubles and confusion, this is not the case with this particular movie; finding Raya and the Last Dragon more streamlined with its ideas and cuts a clear narrative path to follow, with no unnecessary side-stories to go on a tangent and bloat the film’s runtime. What’s presented is quite a harrowing journey, which is accompany by its visual and themes proses, that feels refreshing in the Disney brand, yet also harkening back to the studio’s fundamentals.
At its core, the movie’s themes are very much in-line with what one would expect from a Disney movie, with Raya and the Last Dragon exploring palpable themes, with some reflecting upon today’s world views. In truth, this particular film builds upon several themes and ideas that were already established in several previous Disney animated films. Like Moana, the movie showcases a deeper understanding within a variety of complexed themes into humanity, with Raya and the Last Dragon discussing issues of trusting individuals as one of the primary focal points that the script fixes on. It’s definitely a meaningful and poignant idea to focus on, especially since “trust” is quintessential to everyone across the globe (regardless of race, gender, or society rank). In addition, much like how Frozen II dealt with grief and loss, the movie examines these reflections; deepening Raya’s journey as she has to overcome her own grief as well as her various companions she meets along the way. In truth, all of her traveling companions are dealing with grief and how the bonds of friendship can overcome such darken times. Thus, the idea from Zootopia and Ralph Breaks the Internet definitely come to mind, with Raya and the Last Dragon expressing issues of unity, togetherness, and evolving friendship. Some might argue that these themes are “borrowed” from Disney’s past movies, but I think the opposite, with Raya and the Last Dragon molding and refocusing these universal ideas into the movie, which definitely works and is always timeless lesson to be learned…. regardless of age or creed.
In terms of presentation, Raya and the Last Dragon is hands down absolutely gorgeous as its film’s visual is definitely one of the hallmark positive attributes the animated feature has it in its arsenal. Like how Disney showcase the Polynesian / Pacific Islander culture in Moana as well as Pixar’s presentations into Spanish / Latino culture in Coco and African American culture in Soul, Raya and the Last Dragon plants the film’s landscape and story within the Southeast Asian culture. While the setting and backdrop of the movie depicts the fictional fantasy realm of Kumandra, there is no doubt that the film’s landscape, characters, and topography is based on the Southeast Asian region and, while not as heavily utilized like the Disney / Pixar movies that I mentioned, the gesture is sincere and the end result is quite meaningful and definitely beautiful. This also helps with the animated feature’s visual look, which are stunning and showcase the talented animators at the “House of Mouse” has employed; creating and bringing to life this fictional land within wonders styles of intricate details and colorful locales. There’s plenty to like about this portion examination of Raya and the Last Dragon and is perhaps the strongest positive that the feature has. Even the cinematography feeling throughout the movie is quite epic and graceful; presenting plenty of sequences that are visually stunning and creative imagination. Thus, even if you don’t particular carry for this movie, no one can deny how visual immersive that this movie is. Lastly, what also helps bolster this notion is within the film’s score, which was composed by James Newton Howard, and I do have to say it is quite a beautiful composition. Plenty of memorable sequences of music melodies, flourishes, and rousing heroic spirt of adventure throughout Howard’s score. Definitely a great soundtrack for those who love film music.
As a whole, I did like Raya and the Last Dragon. That being said, there were some minor criticisms that I had with the film that, while not derailing the project, could’ve made the film that much better. Perhaps the biggest point of criticism that I had with the movie is the simple fact that the film has a lot of world building to do. I know I mentioned that above as one of the positives, but its kind of ones of those “double edge sword” type things. There’s definitely a lot going on throughout the movie…. whether that’s in Raya’s journey, the various nations, the friends / enemies she encounters, and the backstory that goes with it. That’s a lot to unpack within a roughly two hours movie and, while the directors and writers do their best (for the most part) to make everything “evenly keel”, some things do get shortchanged. Because of this, the film’s pacing moves at a brisk pace, which is good as it keeps events moving, yet it backfires slightly, with several sequences of plot development or character insight comes across as rushed and a bit shallow. This is not limited to just one particular scene as there are moments that I noticed that were scattered across the entire film and could’ve been easily expanded upon in fleshing various players in the story or to help explain certain things.
As I mentioned, the film’s world of Kumandra is very unique fantasy-esque world to explore and I kind of wanted to more about this wondrous land; exploring the nations that make it up a bit more, exploring the people a bit more, and focusing a bit more time of Raya’s companion along the way. Everything that’s presented in the movie ultimately works, but I just felt that the world should’ve been more uncovered / discovered throughout the movie’s narrative a bit more. Kind of feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity….at least in my opinion. Another point of criticism that I have with this movie is that it takes a bit to get to “the bulk” of Raya and the Last Dragon. What do I mean? Well, the first act or rather the first half hour of the film is a bit sluggish as it stages a lot of the main plot’s event. Yes, I kind of understand the reason behind it, but almost a lot of setup for the film’s main journey and it just takes a bit to push through it. Lastly, the film’s ending needs a slightly better ending or rather a expansion of its conclusion. I did like the ending (don’t get me wrong), but even the ending of the film seems a bit rushed and could’ve been easily expanded upon within an additional three or four minutes to bring a greater sense of closure to this epic adventure. Without spoiling the story, I just felt like that the rivalry between Raya and Namaari needed a better conclusion, with a few fleeting moments of dialogue here and there to sort of “bookend” the film’s back portion would’ve suffice. Again, another missed opportunity. Still, these points are minor criticisms about the movie and didn’t take away from my overall likeability of the feature in anyway.
What definitely helps looking beyond those criticisms is in the voice cast that Raya and the Last Dragon has and indeed it is one of the film’s stronger attributes (behind the film’s animation). There’s not doubt that the selected vocal talents assembled for the film indeed creates a very vibrant and memorable cast of characters, but this also bolsters the idea of Disney’s recent trend of casting individuals of ethnic diversity of that of same of the film’s title characters (see Coco, Moana, and Soul), with the film seeing talented Asian actors and actress lending their voices for Raya and the Last Dragon. Leading the charge in the film is actress Kelly Marie Tran, who provides the voice of the film’s main protagonist character of Raya, a warrior princess from the Heart nation. Known for her roles in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, The Croods: A New Age, and Sorry for Your Loss, Tran has built up a little reputation (the good type) in her acting career, which is probably why she was given the role of being the next Disney princess. In that regard, Tran succeeds and certainly does much of the “heavy lifting” on her shoulders in this movie; finding the character of Raya to be quite a compelling and dynamic character. She’s definitely has that playfulness and warmth to her, but she’s also jaded and quite the loner; not willing to trust in that much of newcomers. All of this translate well in a character and Tran adheres to those ideas within her vocal performance of Raya; delivering a solid job across the board. One thing is for certain, the movie wouldn’t be as good as it is without Tran in the lead role.
Behind Tran’s Raya, the other big “scene stealer” and main attraction of the movie is found within the character of Sisu, a wise-cracking dragon who holds the key of defeating the Druun and who is voiced by actress Awkwafina. Known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Ocean’s Eight, has become quite a rising star in Hollywood over the past several years as she has become involved in a multitude of various projects on both the small and big screen. In this particular movie, Awkwafina is hilarious as Sisu as she definitely brings her own unique style of comedy and lively banter that she is known for. Thus, the milage of likeability within Awkwafina’ s performance of Sisu will depend on how much you like the comedian actress. Personally, I do and it comes across very well in the movie. There are some deeper moments that I didn’t expect within the character and I kind of liked it, with Awkwafina giving Sisu and very energetic yet poignant co-lead character. Plus, as mentioned above, I do like the themes of trust in the film and Sisu brings that. In addition, it’s quite fun to see both Tran and Awkwafina play off one another and together they deliver some of the best lines of character banter in the entire film. In short, Awkwafina is great as Sisu and makes their silly dragon her own and makes for quite a memorable Disney character.
While Tran and Awkwafina are the protagonist characters of the movie, actress Gemma Chan is polar opposite and provides the voice for the film’s antagonist character of Namaari. Chan, known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Captain Marvel, and Transformers: The Last Knight, is also another Asian actress who has begun appearing in more and more projects and her involvement in Raya and the Last Dragon is another solid entry. As Namaari, Chan gives off a steely demeanor within her character, which is in contrast to Tran’s more jaded yet friendly sounding voice for Raya. There is a bit more that the movie could’ve uncovered within Namaari’s own personal life, but what’s given is well-enough, with Chan delivering a solid performance throughout. Together, both Tran and Chan help strength the rivalry between their two characters; making the dynamics between Raya and Namaari feel genuine and deepens their relationship with each other. It’s quite compelling…. even for a Disney movie. As a side-note, actress Jona Xiao (Gifted and Hightown) does a good job in providing the voice for the younger version of Namaari.
The companions that Raya meets and befriends along the way on her journey are definitely colorful and memorable in their own right, with the film giving each one a few moments to shine in the spotlight. This includes actor Izaac Wang (Good Boys and Think like a Dog) as a charismatic 10-year-old entrepreneur and owner of the boat restaurant named Boun from the Tail nation, actor Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange and The Martian) as formidable warrior giant from the Spine nation named Tong, and actress Thalia Tran (Council of Dads and Little) as an infant con-artist from the Talon nation named Little Noi. Collectively, these characters are a little bit on the underdeveloped side and could’ve been expanded upon in their own backstory purposes. Still, what’s given works and each of them is memorable thanks to their physical appearance in Raya’s journey and / or in the vocal performances by the talents behind them. All in all, memorable fun and very animated side companion characters to the feature, but just a bit undercooked in their own rights.
Rounding out the rest of the cast are actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost and Hellboy) as Raya’s father and leader of the Heart nation Chief Benja, actress Lucille Soong (Freaky Friday and Desperate Housewives) as the chiefess of the Talon nation Dang Hu, actress Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve) as Namaari’s mother and the chiefess of the Fang nation Virana, and actress Dichen Lachman (Altered Carbon and Animal Kingdom) as General Atitaya. Most of these players are delegated to small supporting roles in the movie, but, for the most part, these acting talents get the job done within their respective roles in the feature as well as in their unique voices to bring these characters to life. Again, I kind of wished a few were expanded upon, but what’s presented suffices. Lastly, actor Alan Tudyk (Firefly and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) , who was done voice work of various characters throughout the past several Disney movies (see Frozen, Zootopia, 2019’s Aladdin, Ralph Breaks the Internet, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Moana, provides the various grunts and groans for Raya’s colorful sidekick companion Tuk-Tuk and Tudyk does it again in making the character fun and definitely one of the most memorable characters in the movie (beyond Raya and Sisu).
My whole life, I trained to become a guardian of the Dragon Gem. But this world has changed, and its people are divided. Now to restore peace, I must find the Last Dragon. My name is Raya” are the words that echoed in the fantasy epic adventure of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. Directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada (and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa) latest cinematic endeavors delves into the imaginary world of Kumandra; dazzling viewers without grand story of unity, adventure, and the power of trusting individuals within a colorful and animated tale. While the film stumbles slightly in trying to fully unpack all of its expansiveness and storytelling, the movie finds its strides with the positives heavily outweighed the negatives, especially in the film’s directions, sharp humor, palpable universal themes, a spectacle of visual animation, memorable score, and solid voice acting (most notable in Tran and Awkwafina. Personally, I really liked this movie. It delivers on so many fronts that the film’s faults can be easily forgiven for such great cartoon hit. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a welcomed “highly recommended”, especially if you’re a fan of animated feature films or a fan of Disney movies. Regardless….you’ll won’t be disappointed. In the end, while it may not beat out recent big Disney hits like Frozen or Moana, but Raya and the Last Dragon stands tall and proud amongst some of Disney’s greats; dazzling viewers with its beautiful animation, rousing musical score, humorous characters, and what it means to trust in people for the better. For lack of better understand…. Disney delivers another solid hit with Raya and the Last Dragon…hands down!
4.3 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: March 5th, 2021
Reviewed On: March 11th, 2021
Raya and the Last Dragon is 114 minutes long and is rated PG for some violence, action, thematic elements