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Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall's Raya and the Last Dragon marks the 59th animated film from Walt Disney Animation Studios. In nearly 90 years of making animated movies, the company has invented film tropes that it has then gone on to parody, and even deconstruct. However, their first film in 2021 is something entirely fresh. While it still technically qualifies as a Disney Princess movie, no Disney Princess has ever looked like this. After nearly 12 months of having few blockbuster films to enjoy, Raya succeeds at being several types of features at once. It's an animated family adventure. It's a moving and emotional drama. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it's an absolutely kick-ass martial arts flick.
Raya and the Last Dragon transports us to the fictional world of Kumandra. Five hundred years ago, people and dragons lived harmoniously together, but when an evil force called Druun threatened the world with its ability to turn everything it touched to stone, the last dragons sacrificed themselves to create a magical gem and save the world. Centuries later, Kumandra is divided into five nations, each named for a part of the dragon: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.
We meet Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as a child, the daughter of the leader of Heart, who wishes to bring the lands together again. Unfortunately, a choice made by the young girl leads to the splintering of the dragon gem and the return of the Druun. Now Raya must search for Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, and the pieces of the shattered gem – the only hope of fixing the world that has been broken.
And so, the quest begins. Raya and Sisu travel to each of the disparate lands of Kumanda to obtain all the pieces of the dragon gem. Along the way, they meet a handful of characters who join them, like Boun (Izaac Wan), the 10-year-old owner of a floating restaurant, and Tong (Benedict Wong) a warrior member of the land of Spine. They also must deal with Namaari (Gemma Chan), a member of the Fang clan who Raya once saw as a friend.
On the surface Raya and the Last Dragon may seem like a story we've all seen before. It's a Macguffin hunt for a magical object that will make all the bad stuff go away. That's admittedly quite literally what it is, but it's the execution of this story that makes it special. We've never seen this done quite this way, and there's a lot here that we haven't seen from Disney, even after more than eight decades of animated filmmaking.
While this is another Disney animated film about a princess, it's the first one that is not a musical, and that simple choice adds a weight to the story. That's not to say the entire story is played straight. There's plenty of humor, but it's balanced perfectly with the more serious elements. Awkwafina's Sisu is clearly taking some inspiration from Robin Williams classic Genie, as she's the all-powerful sidekick who can be more than a little silly – but she's a more fully realized character than the Aladdin character. She has an important story of her own to tell.
Kelly Marie Tran balances Raya perfectly with both humor and strength.
But Raya and the Last Dragon gives first billing to Raya, and Kelly Marie Tran is the one who does the film's real heavy lifting. Tran wasn't the first person cast in the role of Raya, and while we'll likely never know what that version of the character would have been, Tran is excellent in this performance. She's the perfect voice for a Raya who is focused and fierce, but also able to crack a joke just before she kicks you in the head. Raya's arc is an excellent story all by itself. It goes exactly where you'll probably predict, but it does it so expertly that every beat will still hit you just as intended.
Raya and the Last Dragon is as visually stunning a film as Walt Disney Animation has ever produced.
Raya's quest takes her to a variety of different places, and while the journey swiftly moves between the locations, each one is geographically distinct, giving Disney's layout animators an ability to truly shine by creating a variety of visually stunning landscapes. The deep inspiration taken from Southeast Asian culture is clear, and every shot of the film shows us something new and beautiful; every new place we travel to is a treat to look at – so much so that the only real complaint is that we don't spend enough time taking them all in.
Designing five different lands with their own geography and unique peoples is a lot, and in the 100-ish minutes of the film, we don't spend a great deal of time getting to know these lands, or the people who live there. Getting these places, and a couple of supporting characters who are introduced into the plot only when needed and dropped just as fast when the plot is done with them, a bit more fleshed out could have potentially made some other parts of Raya And The Last Dragon hit a bit harder. At the same time, adding that could have potentially harmed the movie's near-perfect narrative pacing. And now there's more content for the near-inevitable Disney+ follow-up series.
Raya and the Last Dragon’s action is edge of your seat exciting.
The real stand-out aspect of Raya and the Last Dragon is the film's action. Co-director Don Hall previously helmed Disney's Big Hero 6, the most action oriented animated Disney film to date, but Raya takes it all to another level. When your traditional Disney Princess gets to a point where emotion reaches a fever-pitch, out comes the song; but when that happens here, out come the swords. The action sequences ultimately serve the same purpose as a song in a musical, and here they sing just as loud. While we've certainly seen great action set pieces in animated Disney films now and then, they've never been quite so well animated, or so plentiful.
And certainly, this is the first Disney film we could call a martial arts movie. As with the Raya And The Last Dragon's locations, the martial arts on display are accurate to Southeast Asian cultures and, again as with those locations, if there's a downside to the action, it's simply that you wish there was more.
As with many recent films, Disney has made the decision to release the film in two ways. It will be a traditional theatrical release where such things are possible, but it will also be available as a Premiere Access title on Disney+. Whether watched on the big screen, or streaming in one's living room, Raya and the Last Dragon simply needs to be seen. Period.