This Friday, March 5th, Disney released Raya and the Last Dragon to both theaters and Disney+ for a premium fee. The latest Disney animated feature takes place in a fictional, Southeast Asia-inspired land known as Kumandra. The titular heroine is voiced by Kelly Marie Tran and must find and recruit Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon in the world, to unite the warring tribes and save Kumandra. When I saw the trailers for Raya, I was sold. I’m always game for Disney animation, and the setting and visuals made this my most anticipated movie of 2020 (and 2021 after it was delayed). The marketing campaign reminded me a lot of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like those shows, and since Raya and the Last Dragon is similarly inspired by Asian cultures, it could boil down to coincidence. Does Disney’s latest animated feature live up to expectations, or is this dragon a dud? Let’s take a look.
Raya and the Last Dragon finds its protagonist solemnly riding through a wasteland of sand and stone. Raya chimes in as the narrator, offering to explain how things got so bad. We’re treated first to a gorgeous segment detailing the dragons‘ creation of a magical gem to protect humanity from a plague known as the Druun. The Druun are creatures of human discord and only fear water and the combined magic of the dragons. Next, the film delves into Raya’s backstory, showing her initiation as a guardian of the gem, a mantle her family has passed down along the generations. Raya’s father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), invites the tribes from neighboring lands to share a meal and discuss peace. He wants all of the lands to join together and become Kumandra again, but saying as much only leads to more fighting. Raya befriends someone from one of the visiting tribes, but her new friend abuses the opportunity to steal the dragon gem. The attempt merely draws the attention of the other tribes, and the gem is shattered in the kerfuffle. This releases the Druun, spreading darkness across the lands. It’s up to Raya and a ragtag team of friends from across the warring lands to find Sisu, restore the gem, and save the world.
First, I’d like to talk about the obvious; Raya and the Last Dragon is a visual feast. From beginning to end, every texture, facial expression, and movement is stunningly believable. Fabric, hair, foliage, and even stone have never looked this good in CG before. I also like the character designs a lot. Sisu looks very different from the usual dragon I’d expect to see in an animated fantasy. Her look suits her personality and Awkwafina’s vocal performance very well. Raya looks like a hybrid of Pocahontas and Moana, but I’m not complaining. She’s absolutely gorgeous, and I’m glad that they decided to let her be beautiful and a capable fighter. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; you can be badass and fabulous. Namaari (Gemma Chan) is intimidating and very distinguished, even from her own people. Tong (Benedict Wong) is also quite threatening, but his design has an endearing quality that works very well once he joins the main group.
I especially enjoyed the traditionally (or perhaps flash?) animated segments, such as the creation of the gem and, later, the plan of a supporting character to get one of the gem pieces. The way these scenes looked in tandem with the bombastic score and eye-popping fight choreography reminded me of Kung Fu Panda. From me, that’s the highest compliment a film could receive in this category. In fact, the action is one of the best (and most unexpected) elements of Raya and the Last Dragon. The character wields a sword and embarks on a quest to save the world, so I anticipated some fighting. This is some of the most visually arresting combat choreography the Mouse House has put out since Mulan, and it moves even faster because of the digital element. Big Hero 6 isn’t even on the same playing field in this regard. Raya is closer to something like Kung Fu Panda or even The Incredibles in its inventive use of framing, fluid movements, and dynamic angles with the action sequences.
The film’s score by James Newton Howard soars during these dramatic scuffles and is subtle during more intimate interactions. I adored his work for Atlantis: The Lost Empire and especially Treasure Planet, so I was beyond thrilled to see him working with Disney again. I can’t say enough about Howard’s music, but he’s one of my favorite working composers, and his work speaks for itself. The voice acting in Raya and the Last Dragon is pretty good, but not mind-blowing. I was pleased to hear Daniel Dae Kim, voice of General Fong in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Hiroshi in Legend of Korra, as Raya’s dad. He’s an excellent voice actor and has good chemistry with Tran for his brief screentime. Kelly Marie Tran is sympathetic enough as Raya, and I like Awkwafina as Sisu. However, perhaps ironically, I like Sisu’s moments of wisdom and sad memories far more than the jokes she tells. The comedy is pretty weak in Raya, especially compared to other recent Disney films like Moana and Zootopia. The characters speak in modern slang too much. Disney did this with the Genie and Maui, but they were genuinely funny, and it was alright because they were basically omniscient gods. Everyone in this movie talks in street slang at times, with the main character referring to herself as a dragon nerd, and there are even butt jokes. It’s really distracting from the fantasy setting and the drama of the story. It would work better if only the dragon did it, but there’s way too much of that type of humor here.
All this being said, Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a perfect movie, or even close to one. I almost said that the color-coding of the tribes was a design problem in the film. However, it occurs to me that Black Panther, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a number of other popular franchises did this exact same thing. In none of those cases did it annoy me or even distract me from the overall story. This happens to me a lot, where something bothers me in a movie/show, but I don’t understand why, because it happened somewhere else, and I didn’t mind or even enjoyed it there. Really, I think it’s because the color schemes aren’t a design problem. They look great, and I’m sure it would help kids (the film’s primary audience) distinguish these huge groups of people. The real problem with the warring tribes is that their personalities are generic. You can paint the people of Fang gold and white and those of Talon in purple all you want, but they blend together because the characters themselves aren’t distinct.
The film tries to remedy this by giving Raya a friend from each tribe to join her quest – again, just like Avatar: The Last Airbender and plenty of fantasy stories with warring factions. But in Avatar, each nation had a distinct set of beliefs and goals that made sense and mirrored real life just enough without ditching the fantasy of it all. All of Raya’s tribes want the gem because they’re selfish and stupid. This goes against the message the film is trying to communicate, and I’m not sure why the other tribes are treated this way. If your movie is about how we should all work together and stop bickering (which I agree with), don’t use these factions solely as an obstacle for the hero to overcome. We get one scene between Namaari and her mother, Chief Virana (Sandra Oh), that provides a look behind the curtain. Namaari tries to do the right thing, and her mother explains why things are the way they are. There’s also a moment when a young Namaari mentions to Raya that she rarely gets to eat rice because Fang isn’t as nice as it appears. You can tell they were trying to make this a complex situation where everyone is hurting, and nobody is entirely wrong, but it falls flat. If you want everyone to be sympathetic and have a valid point of view, show us that.
Sisu spends a lot of Raya and the Last Dragon‘s second half preaching about trusting people and having faith. Again, I agree with this message. This is a great concept for a movie, especially right now. But I have to side with Raya here because Namaari caused the problem Raya is trying to fix. She hasn’t shown remorse or tried to help Raya fix it; on the contrary, Namaari is an obstacle trying to kill Raya until it’s almost too late. It’s obvious what the film’s message will be from the very beginning, so they could have at least tried to make it a little more believable. I love that Raya has a realistic, relatable character flaw in not being able to trust people. I love that she makes friends among the other tribes who show her that some people are trustworthy. But why is Sisu so sure Namaari is one of these people? It so easily could have gone the other way, even if we know it won’t because this is a Disney movie and they’re not taking any narrative risks like that.
Raya and the Last Dragon is also way too much like Moana. I hope this isn’t a case where Disney has found its new formula to harp on for a decade. Listen, I love Moana. It’s a great movie with a likable protagonist who has real flaws to overcome and features a fantastic soundtrack. But why would you make this movie so similar to that? A young princess from the fantasy version of a far-off country needs to find the magic person and get the thing to the place, or everything ends. It’s not exactly the same, but the stories mirror each other, and it has the same message that there’s no real bad guy and we should listen and cooperate. In fairness to Raya, it’s also not a musical like Moana was. That genuinely surprised me; I guess that, looking back, it wasn’t marketed as a musical, but I just hadn’t considered it wouldn’t be. After Brave, this is only the second Disney Princess movie not to be a musical. Raya and the Last Dragon‘s similarities to Moana don’t do it any favors. Moana is a great movie, and Raya just isn’t. They’re always going to be compared now, and I can’t imagine the results will favor Raya.
Overall, the biggest problem with Raya and the Last Dragon is that its characters and story are just okay. I really love the idea of Raya as a character on paper with the struggle she goes through, and the vocal performance is good enough. But I never really connected with this character on a deeper level like Moana or Rapunzel, or any truly great Disney characters. I know that if this wasn’t a Disney movie, I’d forget about it tomorrow. The story is paper-thin, but unlike great movies like The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon, Raya doesn’t know how to compensate for that. It’s not charming, funny, or emotional enough to suck you into its world and characters. When Raya cries at the thought of losing her father, it just feels artificial to me. I don’t expect it to be real; it’s a movie. Everything is animated, and I know that. But just because it’s all fake doesn’t mean it should feel that way. Raya has a lot going for it, but most of what truly matters is just good enough.
Raya and the Last Dragon features some of the best animation I’ve ever seen. The fight choreography is unbelievably well done. Its musical score is gorgeous and emotionally resonant, and the voice acting is good. This film has a great message and a flawed protagonist with lessons to learn, which I can always appreciate. The idea that we’ve become too tribal is one that I see as a fact at this point. However, the characters and their relationships are just okay. Namaari is too underdeveloped for what they’re trying to do with her. I’d also have liked to feel more genuine emotion between Raya and her dad in the beginning and especially in the end. This is a very basic story where things have to be collected to meet a larger goal, and that’s alright with me. But you need more there to compensate for such a banal, straightforward storyline, and Raya and the Last Dragon just doesn’t have it. I enjoyed the movie more so than not, and I would recommend checking it out for the animation and musical score alone. I also suspect kids are going to love this one, especially Moana fans. However, you might want to just wait until it’s free if you’re not an impatient Disney superfan like me.