Film Review: Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and The Last Dragon
Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Walt Disney Animation
In Theaters and Streaming on Disney+ 03.05
Disney has certainly been branching out into new territories and shaking things up from the standard fairy tale princess stories, but I think it’s safe to say that taking it in the direction of Mad Max as imagined by Zhang Yimou is pushing the envelope a bit further than ever before, and while I tend to enjoy almost all Disney, I couldn’t be much more pleased by the daring breaking of the mold that is Raya and the Last Dragon.
The film takes place in a Southeast Asia–based fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force called the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity, leaving behind the powerful dragon gem. Now, 500 years later, Kumandra is divided into four lands: Talon, Spine, Fand and Heart, all vying for control. Meanwhile, the Druun has returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, The Croods: A New Age), from Heart to track down the legendary last dragon, Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina of The Farewell, Ocean’s 8 and Jumanji: The Next Level). However, along her journey, Raya learns that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.
I may find myself cheering more loudly than most—that remains to be seen—and I’ll freely admit that this movie couldn’t be much more tailored to me if it tried, but I feel almost as if calling Raya and The Last Dragon a new Disney classic is somehow selling it short, because it’s not acknowledging how much it transcends that label into also being the next great mainstream, epic fantasy-adventure movie. The teaming of a seasoned animation director, Don Hall, who directed Winnie The Pooh, Big Hero 6 and co-directed Moana, with a rising-star live-action director, Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting, Summertime), as well as a terrific script by Qui Nguyen (Dispatches from Elsewhere, The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) makes for something refreshingly outside the formula.
The elegant aesthetic of the animation is rich, detailed and awe-inspiring, with a highly realistic look for the humans and a dazzling production design. While the action sequences are spectacular, most of them are more grounded in the pseudo-reality of a martial film, only slipping into the full-on Indiana Jones but with Looney Tunes laws-of-physics sensibilities of something like Tangled when it’s dealing with the wackier, comic-relief characters.
Tran and Awkwafina are two of my favorite screen presences in Hollywood, and they make a flawless vocal duo, with Sisu proving a great match for the latter’s charming, Asian–Whoopi Goldberg–style persona. The rest of the principal voice cast, including Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii 5-0), Gemma Chan (Captain Marvel), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, The Martian) and Sandra Oh (Sideways) and, of course, Alan Tudyk (Firefly) are sheer perfection, with Wong and young Izaac Wang standing out among the standouts. But the far-too-underappreciated Tran, who so memorably brought my new favorite Star Wars character to life—haters be damned—is tasked with anchoring the film. She’s already proving to be one of the industry’s next truly great voice actors, and Raya is a great feather in her cap.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Raya and The Last Dragon‘s predominant theme of putting aside paranoia, distrust and division to build a stronger society couldn’t be more timely, making it a perfect movie for the moment. The breathtaking, regal and rousing musical score by James Newton Howard is so good that it practically requires the invention of new superlatives to describe it.
I’ve already seen Raya and The Last Dragon twice and will probably see it a third before it even opens, at which point I’ll watch it again on Disney. If you’re debating whether or not to pay the admittedly hefty $29.99 premium fee, consider that for unlimited views of a brand-new family movie, it’s really not a bad price. Or you can pay more to take the family to the theater if you feel comfortable doing so, but either way, this magical experience is a can’t-miss adventure that’s suitable for everyone. –Patrick Gibbs