In the newest film from Walt Disney Animation Studios, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, our titular heroine searches the farthest corners of her mythical land to find a mystical dragon. With a map as her guide, I envied her slightly for having a navigational tool that I found myself needing in order to keep track of the dizzying mythology that swirls out of the film at a mile a minute.
A dense narrative thickness makes the first 30 minutes or so of RAYA a little difficult to engage with at first. The entire setup is slightly convoluted if not a little confusing. Further disorienting the experience was the frequent use of up-to-the-minute slang by the main characters — please, can we just all agree that Disney characters in timeless fantasy films won’t say things like “on the regular”?
Despite opening with a clunky, narrated exposition — of the record-scratch-bet-you’re-wondering-how-I-got-here variety — big, magical events happen and the story starts to sail more smoothly.
It’s a shame that it initially feels rushed and yet also slow-paced because at the heart of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON are some very important themes, especially for a fractured America in 2021. It’s just hard to pick out those themes from the murky mythology and six or so plots that could on their own sustain an interesting film. The film tries to cover so much ground that its very dramatic climax doesn’t quite feel as satisfying as it probably should.
Comparisons to MOANA (and FROZEN) will no doubt abound — and they’re not unwarranted, especially in the first and final act, respectively. The core story is similar to MOANA with similar themes also found in FROZEN.
One other note: this is surprisingly one of the more aggressive (perhaps even violent) WDAS films ever attempted. Even 1998’s MULAN, Disney’s only animated movie about war, doesn’t involve quite as much hand-to-hand combat as gets displayed (expertly, I might add!) here. RAYA definitely earns its PG rating.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) herself is also an unusual antihero for Disney, bent almost more on revenge than her other motivations she feels different from the standard Disney princess. Her sullenness is one of the reasons she largely gets outshone by the supporting cast, all of whom are wonderful. Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, grows on you almost immediately and allows Awkwafina the chance to show a whole emotional range. Con-running baby Noi (Thalia Tran) and her monkey-ish minions could easily star in their own series of spin-off shorts. Tong (Benedict Wong) is funny and heartfelt, and Boun (Izaac Wang) is a shrimp congee-slinging joy. Villain Namaari (Gemma Chan) experiences a moral arc that somehow eludes the main character until the story’s final moments.
The voice cast does uniformly excellent work, with the always wonderful Sandra Oh and Daniel Dae Kim rounding out the principal cast as the antagonist and protagonist’s parents, respectively. WDAS lucky charm Alan Tudyk dutifully provides grunts and squeals for Tuk Tuk, the large mammalian pillbug hedgehog thing that Raya rides all over Kumandra.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is visually stunning, exceeding the beauty of any recent effort from Walt Disney Animation Studios. The fantasy world of Kumandra is varied and gorgeous, with lighting and textures that continually stun. Character animation continues to progress as well; just compare Raya’s facial expressions and movement to Elsa’s in the original FROZEN. It’s a testament to the incredible work WDAS has done that few consumers can now differentiate between their films and Pixar’s, long the gold standard in computer animation.
There is a lot to love about RAYA, and its themes of trust and understanding (and a metaphor for a deadly pandemic conceived well before COVID actually became a thing) are sorely needed. If the story had been a little sharper, it could have easily taken its place among the recent classics from WDAS. Regardless, it’s well worth seeing in theaters or on sooner at home on Disney+ Premier Access.
See it for Yourself
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON soars into theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on March 5, 2021.