Raya and the Last Dragon is the beautifully animated latest addition to the Walt Disney Animation Studios collection! An inspiring narrative tackling themes of teamwork, trust, and the power of people coming together to tackle a common threat. However, the film suffers from the same trope so many Disney films suffer from. Absurd, yet, adorable characters that serve to draw cheap laughs from its audiences and, ultimately, sell merchandise.
Raya is the princess of Heart, one of the tribes that make up the fractured lands of what was once the kingdom of Kumandra. She seeks to fulfill a legend by finding and bringing back Sisu, the last dragon who once saved the world from the infestation of monsters known as Druun. Together they’ll have to face the other four tribes to gather the fragments of the dragon gem in the hopes of one day bringing back all who were lost and rid Kumandra of the Druun once and for all.
For those who are already thinking it, I’ll start by acknowledging one thing: I know I am not really the primary intended audience of this film. Admittedly, I struggle more than most with animated Disney films because they seem to want to toe the line between pleasing children while entertaining adults. The problem is they can’t seem to get away from their own formulaic pitfalls. If there’s one thing we can’t deny about Disney is that they know how to make money. This is where the issues storytellers have with the studio come from. They aren’t in the business of making the best art or telling the best stories. They’re in the business of making as much money as possible. A strategy that has made them the biggest studio in the world but one that keeps squarely in the center of criticism because of it, not that they seem to care. I mean, do we really need an infant character who, in reality, shouldn’t even be able to formulate full thoughts, much less run around communicating and pulling off shenanigans with a group of monkeys?
On the positive side, the animation is top notch. Disney is, undoubtedly, the king of digital animation. I mean, no one can make water look as incredible as they do. This is one of the many things that make it stand out above Disney Pixar’s last release Soul. If you liked that one you will likely love this one as well. The graphics stand up against the outstanding animation of Onward, though the story lacks in comparison. The film also has a couple of incredible opening sequences but, unfortunately, never seems to meet that same high throughout the rest of the film.
The voice cast is fantastic with the exception of Awkwafina, and I say that with he full acknowledgement that it was not her fault at all. It was the direction and the way Disney used her. Yes she’s playing a dragon but really she’s just playing herself playing a dragon. We’ve seen this from her. I wish they had used her unique voice in a way that stretched her as an actress, as well as our expectations of what she’s capable of. Kellie Marie Tran was perfectly cast as Raya, as were Benedict Wong, Gemma Chan and Daniel Dad Kim in their respective roles. The showstopper was, however, Isaac Wang as the unforgettable Boun. A character that delights from his introduction to his very last scene.
Overall, the film does a lot of things right and is extremely touching, surely bringing tears to many audience members. The film is also inspiring, if a bit on the nose, and is sure to stay with children of all ages. Parents will likely have a good laugh but don’t expect this film to do anything different than most of the films in Disney’s vault.
Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon releases in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access on March, 3rd.