Disney's newest animated film comes in the form of Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy action-adventure directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. The film takes place 500 years after dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity from monsters named the Druun.
We follow Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a lone warrior who teams up with Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon in existence, to stop the Druun for good. Walt Disney Animation Studios has found their stride in recent years, making both lighthearted fairytales about Disney princesses (Frozen, Tangled) and more unique, creative family films (Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia).
Raya and the Last Dragon combines the two — this is not your typical Disney princess movie with charming princes and true love’s kisses. While we have a charming female lead with an animal sidekick named Tuk Tuk (voiced by the immensely talented Alan Tudyk), this is a unique Disney project.
The film’s opening sequence immediately sets us up for what type of film this is, as we are introduced to Raya trying to capture a gem. The sequence feels reminiscent of the opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there are many sequences and jokes which feel inspired by that series.
While some films such as Tom & Jerry can talk down to children with low-brow jokes and other films like Soul are so mature with its themes that the film becomes inaccessible to children, this movie does an excellent job of riding the line, creating an action-packed ride that offers fun for the whole family.
The action in this movie is directed with an unprecedented level of skill. The fight scenes appear to be inspired by classic globetrotting martial arts epics, and they are directed with a lot of intensity and clarity. We have action scenes that appear to be in the vein of Tomb Raider, and they are enjoyable to watch.
But as this is a Disney movie, the film does follow a familiar formula. Like other animated films, the movie begins with Raya narrating her world's backstory and society. Things go wrong, of course, and that’s when Raya comes in.
Her backstory involving her father should come as no surprise given the fates of other Disney parents, and there are a few predictable story beats. However, the story remains fascinating; it’s a fun, entertaining adventure with exciting scenes and great moments of levity.
The voice cast here is stellar. I’m Asian-American, and with the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, it can be scary to exist sometimes. Watching a mainstream movie with a primarily Asian cast written by Asian writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen is refreshing and comforting, and everyone does a fantastic job.
Kelly Marie Tran is charming in her lead role, and Awkwafina does a great job in a role that primarily serves as comic relief. Gemma Chan voices Namaari, the antagonist of the film, with more than meets the eye. She sells all of her emotions, and the supporting cast rounds everyone out very well.
The movie assembles a group of likable characters as they team up for their mission. While their goal feels familiar for adventure films, it works because of how well-realized the characters are and how the movie throws in a few surprises in its final act.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes a few risks with the villains. The Druun don’t have much of a threatening presence, but Namaari is a fascinating character. Aside from the gorgeous animated landscapes, this is a movie about trust, with many positive lessons for children and adults alike.
Grade: ★★★★☆ [8/10, B+]
Raya and the Last Dragon will be in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021.
Rating: PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements