Some of the best Disney animated films tend to take us to a new and exciting world. It always felt like Pixar was the studio to handle that sense of daring with their more high-concept stories. By comparison, the films of the Walt Disney Animation Studio always felt like the traditional Disney factory, churning out simpler tales of fantasy musicals or frenetic subversion of their very tropes.
But Raya and the Last Dragon is the first film out of the studio’s computer-animation division that feels like a brisk change of pace for the studio. It’s wondrous but not childlike; charming yet intelligent and stern yet sincere. There’s an exciting marriage of action, world-building, and heart that seemed only destined for films outside the Disney brand.
A World Once of Dragons
I really dug the way this film in how it establishes its world with great detail. We’re introduced to the stunning South Asian-inspired world of Kumandra, a place where dragons once lived in harmony with humans. But when the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the world, humanity divided into unique and warring tribes.
Each tribe, named after a different body part of a dragon, has its own culture and style to give a distinct visual style. Talon appears as a highly commercial community with its bustling trade port while the secluded island of Fang has the feeling of a decadent Rome. All sides are thirsty for the remaining water magic of the last dragon. The remaining magic only exists in an orb that is protected by the Heart tribe.
The Coming-of-Age Warrior
Among the Heart tribe is the chief’s daughter, Raya. She’s anxious to prove herself to her tribe by becoming the best warrior, prepared to go off to war for her people. Her father, however, believes that those 500 years of war may be coming to a close when peace is on the table.
Raya’s trust in her father’s words dies when witnessing the deception and cruelty of the tribes. They shatter the orb and force the evil back into their world. In this case, evil is a mass of black clouds that transforms people into stone.
Years pass and now Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has grown up to become bitter of the world. She rides around on her large armadillo/bug creature Tuk Tuk, wandering a decaying world. She is searching for some hope that can fix the world. A dragon, perhaps.
The Welcoming Dragon
Eventually, Raya happens upon Sisu (Awkwafina), the last remaining dragon in the world. Though the dragon is capable of magic, Sisu admits she was a bit more of the hunt in her pack. As a water dragon, her powers are limited unless she can collect all three shards of the magical orb she once used to save the world.
Sisu conflicts with Raya’s nature in that Sisu has faith in others and astonishment in the world. Having been dormant for 500 years, Sisu hasn’t experienced the cruelty mankind has adopted without her presence. Raya feels this is a hindrance but it may be just what she needs to save Kumandra.
War and Peace
The journey of Raya and Sisu finds them visiting every tribe and taking back with them more than just another piece of the orb. They encounter obstacles of warriors defending their territory and thieves trying to find something to eat. All of them have one thing in common with Raya: they’ve lost someone to evil forces that consumed their world.
Raya slowly comes to learn over the course of the film that she’s not the only one with a stake in this fight. The plight of her people affects all people. Her distrust in others becomes less of a trait and more of a fault that could doom everyone if she doesn’t see the error of her ways.
But Raya’s quest to better herself doesn’t come easy at all. The third act, in particular, features a heart-breaking tragedy that only furthers her rage. By the time she reaches her rival of Fang’s warrior princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), she may be too blinded by hate to make the correct call.
What’s most remarkable about the film is that it’s loaded with exciting action. The fight sequences are treated with real danger and intensity that one would expect from a live-action adventure. Scenes of swords that transform into whips and magic that can ward off evil evoke that familiar sense of profound storytelling akin to Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, obviously, and not the movie).
Thanks to some compellingly distinct and vibrant computer animation, there a number of dazzling and thrilling sequences. One of my favorites features Raya and Namaari squaring off for her anger-driven showdown amid a crumbling palace. It is one of the most exhilarating pieces to come out of the studio.
A Story About Loss
For a film with a lot of action, it’s surprising that the film manages to be about less without essentially having characters die. The characters affected by the evil are mostly trapped in stone but their absence from the world is treated earnestly. It deeply saddens Raya to know her father sacrificed himself so that she may save the world, a story that Sisu can very much relate to.
Though the film does have quite an allure of chases and fights, it also has a few moments to slow down and address these issues of loss. Even characters who simply seem to be there for laughs, as with a con-artist baby, all have their motivations and backstories. You really start to feel for them to do more than just save the world by the end of the picture.
Trust in the Dragon
I really dug where the film plants its flag. It embraces a philosophy of finding peace and trust with one another, even in moments where that may seem impossible. The road to redemption is not framed as an easy goal. Characters will often make multiple mistakes in their quest for what they believe is right when lacking empathy.
There’s a moment Namaari seems to kill one character and the initial thoughts of Raya is that she is beyond saving, that she must be killed. In any other animated film, that could very well happen. But the ambitions of such a film exceed far more than that of revenge, embracing thinking not as common for adventure epics that rely on murder, betrayal, and vengeance to push a heroic tale.
It’s what makes the character of Sisu most intriguing. Her trust in others is posed as a problem when she isn’t accustomed to the art of theft and lies. But her method of seeing the best in everyone is what makes her the perfect mentor for Raya, acting as far more than the goofy dragon sidekick in her adventures.
Conclusion: Raya and the Last Dragon
I have a good feeling about the legacy Raya and the Last Dragon will leave on its audience. It does have slow patches and has some questionable utilization of cultural elements (as with every Disney animated film rooted in non-Western cultures). But when it comes to the animation and writing of such a tale, it’s leagues beyond that of the Walt Disney Animation Studio’s previous efforts of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph.
There was a sense of sublime wonderment I had throughout watching the film. It echoed the same fantastical appeal I experienced with Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have a hunch the younger crowd who grows up with this film are going to look back on it with a similar fondness.
The boasting of a powerful message amid fantastic world-building and exciting action make Raya an unexpected treat of a film from a studio that usually churns out musicals and comedies. Fantasy and action have just as much a place in animation and it’s pleasing to see this in a Disney animated.
Did you see Raya and the Last Dragon? Is it worth the $30 on Disney+? How does it stack up against Soul? Let us know in the comments.
Raya and the Last Dragon
A strong fantasy/adventure by Disney that's a refreshing change of pace for the studio.
- Fantastic World-Building
- Strong Message of Forgiveness and Trust
- Thrilling Animated Sequences
- Exposition Heavy at Times
- Little Time To Develop a Slew of Charming Characters
- Leans Heavy on Fantasy Lore