'Raya and the Last Dragon' Soars

It may be mere content, but Disney's latest is stunningly rendered all the same.

Raya And The Last Dragon
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Eighty-four years after Walt Disney’s first animated feature, the film studio that bears his name has a handful of story formulas down pat, including its most frequently used: a young female’s coming of age sees her caught up in bigger ideas, unintentionally complicating the situation through her actions, and then finally rising to save the day. There are outliers, of course, including the likes of Zootopia (2016) and Bolt (2008), but many of Disney’s biggest animated successes return to that core concept and general labeling of “Disney Princess tales.”

Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, once again revisits that familiar well, but like 2016’s Moana and 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, the film stands apart, through fresh voices and cultures, while still embracing universal truths and ideals. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also stunningly animated and one of Disney’s most breathtakingly beautiful endeavors yet.

The land and people of Kumandra once lived in harmony and peace alongside magical beings called dragons. The arrival of a malevolent force called the Druun left the landscape ravaged and turned living creatures into stone. The world only survived through the actions of the dragons, who sacrificed their species to save all others. Five hundred years later, though, the human population is divided by geography, jealousy, and mistrust.

One of the land’s leaders, Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Day Kim), attempts to broker peace with the others, but greed, wariness, and betrayal fracture the last remnant of the dragons’ power, once again releasing the Druun into the world. Newly orphaned, Benja’s daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), takes it upon herself to search for the rumored last dragon in the hope that humanity might yet stand a chance, but even finding Sisu (Awkwafina) is no guarantee that people can come together to save themselves and each other.

Raya and the Last Dragon is, quite simply, absolutely and utterly gorgeous. The visuals alone make it worth seeing as viewers are pulled into a world both familiar and new with varied landscapes, wonderfully emotive beings, and sequences that fill your eyes with their beauty. The script, written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), weaves the expectedly familiar narrative beats with a diverse range of cultural details and inspirations coming from different countries, including Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and the result is a Disney adventure that straddles the line between giving viewers a proven formula and introducing them to new characters, perspectives, and worlds. It’s funny at times without being overly silly, and while ultimately simple at heart, its central theme is executed with an effective grace.

The core story here is a plea for unity in the face of global threat, but while it’s easy to read something like global warming into the mix, that never threatens to overshadow the story or characters. The Druun is visualized as a storm-like presence that grows and multiplies as it moves across the landscape, and that lack of a personified villain allows the real conflict to exist between the human characters. The various clans — Heart, Tail, Fang, Spine, and Talon — take their names from parts of a whole, and the lesson the film wants to impart is a simple one. Humans, whether as individuals, groups, or nations, can accomplish the most when working together. As with our own world, the clans here struggle to find the trust and compassion necessary to make that hope a reality.

Trust is a key theme in Raya and the Last Dragon, as evident in how often it’s mentioned, and it’s a lesson we could all stand to hear, see, and practice more often. Raya’s betrayal at the hands of her peer, Namaari (Gemma Chan), leaves her wary of others, but the film delivers a steady stream of supporting characters to nudge her in the right direction. From a large warrior (Benedict Wong) to a child restaurateur (Izaac Wang) to an infant con artist and thief (who steals her every scene) to Sisu, the ensemble imbues both the film and Raya with warmth, humor, and kindness that just might teach her to trust again and find a renewed faith in those around her.

Directors Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) and Don Hall (Big Hero 6) — along with a team of talented animators, many of whom worked their magic from home during the ongoing pandemic — capture expressive details in the characters’ Southeast Asian appearances and gestures of respect, and the human details are paired with wondrous visuals of the world at large. The film features landscapes both lush and apocalyptic and action sequences capturing heists and hand-to-hand combat. The latter sees characters fight using relevant styles from silat to Muay Thai, and the resulting faceoff between Raya and Namaari delivers a thrilling set-piece that any action film would love to claim as its own.

Raya and the Last Dragon gives much of its focus, obviously, to Raya and Sisu, but all of the characters manage to delight in one way or another. (Be sure to save some love for the “Toot ‘n’ Boom” bugs, which do exactly that.) Given its theme, characters coming together is ultimately where things are heading, but the beats still squeeze tears at times as the animation, writing, and James Newton Howard‘s terrifically affecting score wring the emotion from your eyes. It’s fitting as water plays an important role in the tale, and you’ve never seen it animated so exquisitely as is managed here — from water droplets to nautical travel to the epic beauty of a character leaping from one raindrop to the next, it is extraordinary.

Disney’s latest is, in many ways, a film that fits the mold of what’s come before, but Raya and the Last Dragon is also an overdue step in a new direction. From its cultural identity to the welcome lack of a romance to Raya’s final heroic beat being as atypical as it is unexpected, this is a gorgeous film and an experience you’ll want to share with family members young and old. Play it loud, play it big, and bask in its hopefulness for the people we could maybe someday become.

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