Adventure has a new name and that name is Raya.
Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest film from Walt Disney Animated Studios and, on the surface, it invokes some of the most memorable adventure franchises of all time—Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender—but it does so in its own magical Disney way. The film creates a mythology and world bursting with Southeast Asian influence and messages that feel more than a little appropriate in 2021. It’s truly wonderful.
We first meet Raya (Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran) as a young woman who has earned the role of Guardian of the Dragon Gem from her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). The Dragon Gem is a key piece of history that’s been in Raya’s family for generations. Years ago, it saved their land, Kumandra, from an ancient evil but resulted in the once-united people divided into several groups. Now, five tribes are constantly at odds over the Gem, which leads to an event that’ll change everything.
The Dragon Gem is obviously named that for a reason; Kumandra used to be filled with dragons who helped humanity and the gem was used by Sisu—the last dragon—to save the land from the ancient force. Though much has changed, there is a legend that Sisu still exists, but no one has seen her in 500 years. That’s where the real story begins. It’s no spoiler to reveal Raya finds Sisu (Awkwafina) fairly quickly, and she’s not what Raya is expecting. The two then set off on a great journey having to do with the Dragon Gem, and along the way they pick up new characters to help them on their quest. There are plenty of mysteries surrounding the dragons and history of Kumandra, and each tribe has very strong feelings about it which provide lots of drama and action along the way.
Raya and the Last Dragon is densely packed with mythology and all of that is just a sliver of it. But the sprawling backstory and history never feel overwhelming or hard to follow. In fact, the way the story is told, it’s almost the opposite. Everything fits and flows together harmoniously, acting to enrich the heart of the film, which is Raya and Sisu’s quest to save their people, and the friendship developing between the two.
Their journey is also filled with some very exciting action set pieces and, most importantly, an excellent cast of supporting characters, all of whom are voiced by incredible actors. There’s Namaari (Gemma Chan) who is Raya’s main rival. Tong (Benedict Wong), who represents one of the five tribes. Virana (Sandra Oh) is Namaari’s mom and leads another tribe. Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) is Raya’s trusty pet and mode of transportation. The list goes on and on. The true highlight for me, though, is a character referred to as “Con Baby.” Voiced by Thalia Tran, she appears at first just to be just a cute baby but is actually a devilishly minded criminal who gets in Raya’s way. “Con Baby” is a great example of the twists and turns throughout the film.
Each of those characters almost feels worthy of their own movie because they’re so richly detailed and layered with complex emotions. That goes for the setting as well, which is lush and beautiful, but also somehow fantastic and otherworldly. It’s a place you believe could exist in reality as well as a fantasy which, again, only works to make Raya and Sisu’s journey more moving because it’s grounded just enough to be relatable.
Raya and Sisu’s chemistry provides lots of laughs and wonder which, ultimately, builds to some very heavy, powerful moments. Both Tran and Awkafina’s voice performances sustain this by delicately balancing confidence, humor, pain, regret, and understanding in ways that make the characters shine. They have to make difficult, borderline impossible choices in order to restore order to the world so you’ll definitely want to watch with a box of tissues nearby.
If there’s one fault in Raya it’s that, at times, it feels a bit too close to those other fantasy and adventure franchises. The warring tribes feel like they are ripped straight from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The growing group of people helping Raya feels very Lord of the Rings. Her relationship with Sisu has strong How To Train Your Dragon vibes. And yet, in the end, even that doesn’t hurt the movie too much. It’s original enough to stand on its own and never crosses any line.
Of course, Kumandra is fictional but was inspired by several Southeast Asian cultures. We should note here that while Raya features a predominantly Asian American cast, it’s been suggested the studio could have gone a bit further in terms of its Southeast Asian representation. And yet, directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, along with writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, almost personify the diverse collective that is Kumandra. Working together, blending new perspectives and visions, with experience in different mediums and genres, they make Raya feel less like it came from a singular voice and more like a chorus of them.
Truly, Raya and the Last Dragon is just a well-made, enjoyable movie across the board. The entire voice cast is excellent. The animation is beyond gorgeous. The story is emotional and multi-faceted. It’ll leave you not just entertained, but introspective about your own life and the world we live in today. That’s really the best thing about it. Yes, it’s a big, sweeping epic action hero adventure. But it also has really relatable messages about friendship, family, trust, hope, and greed. Not every animated film leaves you thinking about it after the fact. Raya does.
Raya and the Last Dragon comes to theaters, and Disney+ Premier Access, on March 5. If you love other recent films by Disney Animation like the Frozen films, Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph, etc., this is right up there with the best of them.
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