Published on March 2nd, 2021 | by Andrew Bistak
Raya and the Last Dragon – Film Review
Summary: Raya and The Last Dragon successfully delivers a new twist on the modern Disney princess!
Reviewed by Andrew Bistak on the 28th of February 2021
Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Animation presents a film directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim
Produced by Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho
Starring Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran and Alan Tudyk
Music by James Newton Howard
Running Time: 142 minutes
Release Date: Thursday 4 March 2021
While a tad predictable (in a good way), Raya and the Last Dragon is an enjoyable film from start to finish and boasts an impressive voice cast led by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) who successfully bring their animated characters to life. Compared to the traditional cohort of classic Disney Princess films, it is quite the contrast and is more akin to Japanese anime opposed to singing and dancing through enchanted forests. While it does contain the classic Disney archetypes such as a sidekick who happens to be a Dragon and a “villain” which threatens the very fabric of the world of Kumandra, this Asian inspired action story is a refreshing twist on the classics.
The protagonist in Raya and the Last Dragon is Raya, a princess from the Kingdom of Heart that at an early age has become one of the protectors of the Dragon Gem. This magical artefact has kept the monsters called the Druun at bay for 500-years after the guardians of this planet, the dragons sacrificed themselves to protect humanity from this ancient evil. Unfortunately when Raya’s father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) attempts to reunite the broken factions of this world which include the Kingdoms of Heart, Tail, Spine, Fang and Talon, a chain of deadly events is unleashed. According to all the kingdoms except Heart, they believe that the Dragon Gem has given this kingdom both power and prosperity which is not the case. So when the gem is accidentally shattered into five pieces, this unleashes the Druun from their prison as they turn the living inhabitants of this world into pure stone.
It is then up to our young heroine Raya to help recover the pieces of the gem and to find The Last Dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), a goofy water dragon who might be able to rebuild the gem and like in the past, bring peace to this shattered world. However we soon learn that Sisu wasn’t the most powerful dragon among her siblings which creates some interesting challenges along the way. Sisu also has some parallels to Robin Williams Genie from Aladdin but thankfully the dragon is her own character.
If Raya in the Yin, then Namaari (Gemma Chan) is her Yang, a warrior princess from the Kingdom of Fang who was the main catalyst in breaking the Dragon Gem and at the start of the story, she was sent by her mother, Chieftess Virana (Sandra Oh) to befriend and deceive our hero. Predictably there is bad blood between the two and Namaari is always one step behind Raya as she wants the pieces of the gem for Fang, including Sisu, the Last Dragon. It sets her up well as the antagonist.
Furthermore, the character growth between Raya and Namaari is a key element in the film and while both believe that they are right, the dynamics between this split works well. Then you have Sisu who adds the humour to this well-written story and while she plays the hapless and at times juvenile dragon, she is far wiser than she appears. Given that, Awkwafina is brilliant as Sisu and her voice acting really shines in the film and adds a much needed contrast to the brooding Raya and Namaari, including adding an emotional tether to the story. Then you have the action scenes which are great and I don’t think I’ve seen this much martial arts choreography and battles in an animated Disney film before that more importantly, suits the themes well.
As there is a darkness to the story, Raya and the Last Dragon cleverly adds comedy and a wide range of emotions into the right places. For example one character called Noi (Thalia Tran) is a con-baby who uses her monkeys with nine stomachs to cheat strangers from food and money or Boun (Izaac Wang), a 10-year old entrepreneur and owner of the “Shrimporium”, a boat restaurant who is trying to survive this dangerous new world without his parents. Also joining Raya is the giant of a man and last warrior of the Kingdom of Spine, Tong (Benedict Wong) who provides some additional muscle to their mission but as the sole survivor of his tribe, carries their burden on his shoulders. Lastly you have Raya’s trusty steed, the roling armadillo called Tuk Tuk and like the above, provides a slightly different layer of comedy. Needless to say, all the voice actors carefully find that perfect balance of emotion to their performances which really makes the story shine.
Visually, Raya and The Last Dragon is spectacular and its stylised CGI animation with elements of South-eastern Asian mythology and its unique colour palette looks fantastic on the big screen. While the film will also be available on Disney+, you will appreciate the work that when into its creation on the big screen, particularly its fine attention to detail. The score behind the film is composed by James Newton Howard complements the visuals and story behind this blockbuster film, including elements of Asian themes.
While I enjoyed Raya and The Last Dragon, there was a touch predictability thrown into the mix and I felt that the story could have touched upon the origins of the Druun more which was a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, it still worked well and I’m glad that its story tellers did touch upon the dragons story throughout the film. Besides the story and animation, the other highlight of this film was seeing Raya grow as a character and the surrogate family she created to help defeat the Druun and of course, the silly yet wise dragon, Sisu. In the end, Raya and The Last Dragon sets a new benchmark for Disney princess films with its fantastic animation, a perfect voice cast and a story that drew you in from the start and kept you part of this wild rollercoaster action-adventure until the end credits started rolling.