From the moment Raya and the Last Dragon begins, the Disney trademarks are there for everyone to see. It’s setting is a fictional land packed with mythical creatures, there’s a plucky heroine with a mystery to uncover and a time-spanning story that ties everything up nicely.
At its heart Raya is a classic Disney princess story, but there’s more to it than that, it’s a vivid, emotional story complimented by brilliant action and stunning animation, truly some of the best I’ve seen even by Disney standards. It may follow a tried and tested Disney formula but don’t be fooled into thinking Raya’ offers nothing new, the clever screenwriting is backed up by a brilliant cast of voice actors who breathe life and help to evolve the concept we’ve come to know and love.
Raya and the Last Dragon opens with a time-spanning introduction that covers centuries of history. Set in the mythical land of Kumandra, a vast geographically diverse region that’s citizens are united by their love of dragons. The landscapes are animated in beautiful detail, which contrasts with the sudden arrival of a dark force that attempts to destroy humanity. The dragons sacrifice themselves to save the humans, but in their absence, Kumandra tears itself apart trying to seize power.
Raya and the Last Dragon has a great sense of balance, it’s a heroine story which follows Raya – voiced brilliantly by Kelly Marie Tran, but also a quest story that gives us moving moments of human experience. Add to that the whimsical silliness of a supporting cast of characters whose presence teach us lessons of loyalty and love. All of this combined make it an instant Disney classic, and Raya is the perfect Disney Princess for modern times.
Recent Disney stories have taught us that the days of lead female characters waiting around for true love’s kiss are well and truly over. There are much more depth to modern female characters, they’re strong, independent and capable of being the hero of their own story. Raya as a character draws definite parallels to Moana, but unlike Moana she doesn’t have any powers or abilities to call on nature that help her in her quest. Raya is her own character, her abilities don’t come from any mystical energy, but from training. Her desire to do good is within her all along, there are certainly plenty of life lessons to draw here.
Raya is a hero for kids to look up to in 2021. She is fierce, kind, strong, and determined, everything that a character in a modern kids movie should be. “But what is a hero without a sidekick?” I hear you ask. Well, Raya has Tuk Tuk, voiced by Alan Tudk, part armadillo part pug and as her quest grows, so does her group of friends. The group of companions provide the balance between serious story and goofy comedy. There’s Noi (Thalia Tran) and her Ongi friends, who help to balance Raya’s weaknesses. Tong (Benedict Wong) a Warrior who adds physical strength, Noun (Izaac Wang) who provides transportation and Sisu (more on her in a second).
The group come together over their collective grief of lost loved ones, providing the audience with plenty of opportunity to pick a favourite character. Each one is well written and rounded and has their own motivations, teaching us a lesson of teamwork and trust.
Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina, is hilarious. She’s about as far from what you’d imagine the last dragon to be. She’s awkward, funny and kindhearted. She’s a lens into what humans could be if we all worked together, she is a great metaphor for hope and reminds me of why this movie feels perfect for our time. At a time when we’re unable to watch the latest Disney blockbuster in a cinema, Raya and the Last Dragon seems to serve as a reminder of better days, and that they will soon come good again.
Sisu is pure Disney, almost straight out of a 90s Disney classic. She’s 2021’s Flounder, Mushu or dare I say it Genie. She’s a modern day fairy Godmother and witty sidekick all rolled into one, and kids everywhere will wish they had their own dragon best friend.
I can’t talk about Raya and the Last Dragon without mentioning it’s cultural impact. Raya is Disney’s first Southeast Asian Princess, another step in Disney’s continued effort towards diversity which is backed by its cast. Although Kumandra is a fictional place, it’s clearly inspired by various aspects of East Asian culture. There’s heavy reference to Southeast Asian architecture, fashion, food and culture. I was able recognise conscious choices to show the culture in this movie, which feel deeply rooted and natural.
Technically the animation is flawless, its a masterpiece and I don’t think you’ll see the same standard anywhere else, certainly not for a while. An example is the amount of water in Raya, which looks like real water. The film has diverse landscapes from deserts to snowy Forrests to colourful marketplaces, which all look like pure art. Whilst you can tell Raya is a Disney character in the face, she seems closer to human proportions that we’ve seen before, the attention to detail on the other human characters is evident too, even background characters all look unique.
The film’s score is composed by Grammy award winner James Newton Howard. It’s wonderful, and helps to move along the story through action sequences and poignant emotional moments. It’s important to mention that Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t a musical, but it doesn’t need to be, I certainly didn’t miss or even really notice it’s lack of songs. Everything else going on served to tell the story on its own, without the need for songs.
Something I do think is worth mentioning is price. If you’re in a location where cinemas are not yet open then your only option for Raya and the Last Dragon for now is Premier Access via Disney+ The UK price is £19.99 (other regions may vary) The justification on the price tends to be based on at least 2 people going to see it at the cinema, in which case the price seems reasonable. However if you’re living alone, it is quite expensive on top of your subscription fee. I can’t speak for anyone else’s financial situation, all I can say is whether I believe Raya is worth the fee, which I do.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a heart-warming adventure with a great cast of characters, that is beautifully animated. It’s entertaining from the start and will keep people of all ages engaged. In my opinion, Raya and the Last Dragon fits perfectly amongst some of the best Disney classics. If I was ranking it amongst the modern Disney animations I’d say its up there with Frozen, and Moana. A definite must see for all, and something I’ll definitely watch again.
Raya and the Last Dragon is available now on Disney+ via Premier Access for a fee of £19.99 (UK) and will be available as part of the Disney+ subscription with no additional fee on June 4th.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” features an outstanding voice cast, including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison and Ross Butler. Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are directing, with Paul Briggs and John Ripa co-directing. Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho are the producers, and Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim wrote the screenplay.