Walt Disney Pictures Animation returns with a project that is equal parts exciting and beautiful in the all-new Raya and the Last Dragon. And this exotic, high-fantasy adventure of a heroine, a dragon and an epic quest to save the world makes for plenty of fun.
Long ago, in the world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, and her pet pill bug companion Tuk Tuk, to track down the last dragon in order to finally stop the Druun for good. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than dragon magic to save the world—it’s going to take trust as well.
Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada get to do something special with Raya and the Last Dragon, a brand new and totally original new motion picture from Walt Disney Pictures that really does something interesting with the fantasy genre. Taking place in the mystical, but now broken land of Kumandra, Hall and Estrada tell a classic heroes tale of two mismatched characters, Raya, a young warrior who has a thing or two to learn, and Sisu, a goofy young dragon, who doesn’t quite live up to her legend, as they undertake a crazy adventure that is sure to enthral audiences.
Telling a well-paced and fascinating story about one young woman’s quest to save her homeland, Hall and Estrada place their focus on Raya’s growth as a character as the central tenant of their film and the result is a fascinating watch. Inspired by the custom and cultures of South East Asia, Hall, Estrada and their team of talented artists and storytellers have envisioned an astonishing world in this picture and you certainly soak it all in as an audience member. From the visual standpoint, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of the most beautiful Disney films to date, and its lush, colourful and vibrant energy transports viewers to a brand new land of adventure and possibility.
Innovation and originality are right at the top of the list for Hall and Estrada and this leads to a brilliant sense of worldbuilding and mythos in Raya and the Last Dragon. Taking place in the exotic land of Kumandra, audiences are introduced to the five different lands and cultures of this fantasy world which include Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail, and the production team behind Raya have gone to incredible detail to bring this film to life. Every single culture is meticulously well-thought-out and designed, and this clarity of design and artistry makes the narrative that much more powerful in its delivery.
Stepping into the shoes of young warrior and dragon guardian Raya is Kelly Marie Tran and she’s pitch-perfect in the role. A determined young woman who believes in the myth of Sisu and who desires to restore her legend to life and save Kumandra before its too late, Tran’s vocals and physical performance lend believability to Raya and the naturalness in her performance makes you feel all the more for this character and the conviction of her quest. Tran gives Raya many layers, and the complexity of her character keeps this narrative interesting. Audiences will find themselves with an awesome new character that they can cheer for and this is all down to Tran’s exceptional performance.
Joining Tran as the goofy and precocious water dragon Sisu is the delightful Awkwafina, and she revels in her role. Worshipped as the saviour of Kumandra, Sisu doesn’t fully live up to her legend, but with Raya’s help, she’s able to go on a quest and truly become the dragon of legend. Awkwafina’s comedic timing is once again perfect, and her kooky mannerisms as this character give this film plenty of fun and energy and she steals every single scene that she’s in. Like Tran, Awkwafina’s performance is shaped by honesty and a conviction to present a great character for audiences, and younger viewers will delight in the performance that she gives in this film.
Facing off against Raya and Sisu is Gemma Chan as Namaari, a warrior princess of the Fang Land and Raya’s enemy. And she’s a very complicated character. As Raya’s shadow image, Namaari is presented as an all-out bad girl character, but just like Raya there are many layers to her character and the journey she takes is an interesting one to behold. Chan gives Namaari a burning anger and resentment that gives the character a serious edge, and this creates the space for some major surprises and character development that audiences won’t anticipate.
Filling out the rest of the supporting cast in Raya and the Last Dragon is Benedict Wong as Tong, a formidable warrior giant, Izaac Wang as Boun, a 10-year-old entrepreneur and Thalia Tran as Little Noi, a toddler con artist. As Raya’s fellow compatriots in her quest to restore Kumandra each of them adds a unique flavour to the film, along with their own hilarious comedy and you’ll be laughing hysterically thanks to the antics of these three trouble makers. Compliments must also be given to Daniel Dae Kim who stars as Raya’s father, Chief Benja, and he brings a deep sense of respect and guardianship to the character.
In addition to its strong narrative and lavish visuals, Raya and the Last Dragon also has a very unique sense of spirituality that is present throughout its storytelling. Drawing from the real-life spiritual practices of Buddhism and Hinduism, directors Hall and Estrada give Raya and the Last Dragon a unique spiritual practice, and while it is subtle, this sense of a strong spiritual base helps the narrative to hit deeper and leaves a strong impression on audiences.
The storytelling of Raya and the Last Dragon draws on strong core themes of trust, friendship and togetherness, and Hall, Estrada and their team push these throughout the narrative. The theme of trust, and what it means to both give and receive it, is the central thematic element of the film. This theme has a profound influence over the narrative and it fully shapes the journey that Raya, Sisu and their friends must take together in order to save Kumandra. This strong presence of well-shaped narrative themes alines the film with other classic Disney Animation stories such as Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, and allows the audience to fully invest in the film’s narrative.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a film where every element of the production comes together in harmonious balance and the result is a beautiful story that audiences that can fully escape into. Disney fans, both young and old, will find an immense sense of joy with this new piece of cinema and it does something special and is very much worth the watch.
Image: Walt Disney Pictures