It feels impossible to think about those heady days of BC (before corona) cinema, but I only realised today that since the start of the pandemic we haven’t haven’t had a new release from Walt Disney Animation Studios. Pixar bookended 2020 with Onward and Soul, but you have to go back to Frozen II in November 2019 for the last time we got a Walt Disney Animation. Victim to an initial pandemic delay, March was finally chosen as the month for Raya And The Last Dragon to make its debut on Disney+. I must admit I hadn’t heard much about this in the lead up to release, so I was excited to jump in without any expectations.
Inspired by an amalgamation of Southeast Asian cultures, Raya And The Last Dragon is an animated fantasy that tells the story of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a teen warrior princess who embarks on an adventurous journey to find Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon in existence, and reunite the broken factions of her once unified and prosperous land Kumandra. Further supporting characters are voiced by the likes of Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong and Lucille Soong. That’s a cast list that any live action movie would be proud to boast, let alone an animation!
The thing that I found most striking about Raya And The Last Dragon is just how much of a true adventure it is. You have to go as far back as underrated gems like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet to find Disney animations with the same kind of vibe. There are certainly hints of Moana and Mulan along the way, but this feels a lot more swashbuckling, and the lack of musical numbers sets a different tone that makes the film feel a little bit more serious and epic. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s certainly fully envisioned and ambitious one.
The central narrative revolves around Raya and her accumulated cast of sidekicks travelling to each tribe’s land and collecting part of a gem stone, and this does lend itself to quite a linear video game style of plot. The first half of the film in particular leans into the repetition of new land/overcome obstacle/find gem stone for a considerable amount of time, but in my opinion it more than makes up for it with absolutely stunning visuals. Each split territory of old Kumandra is named for a different part of a dragon, Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail, and they all have very different aesthetic deigns that keep the film incredibly visually exciting and stimulating. I feel like every time I review a Disney or Pixar film I say it is the most beautiful to date, but some of the animation work in Raya And The Last Dragon really did take my breath away.
If I were to criticise anything, it would be that the film doesn’t necessarily play with the heart strings as much as we have come to expect from Disney. There is certainly a lot of emotional content, with the theme of losing loved ones pretty much front and centre, but compared to something like Pixar’s recent triumph Soul, the memorable aspects of Raya And The Last Dragon are definitely the action and the visuals rather than the emotional highs and lows. The film didn’t have me in tears, and to be honest, it doesn’t take a lot these days!
Unsurprisingly, it’s the animation that captures the imagination here rather than any specific voice performance, but that isn’t to say that the cast don’t do a great job across the board. Kelly Marie Tran as Raya sounds about as ‘modern Disney’ as you can get, and I mean that in the best ways. Raya is a spunky, independent, fierce female protagonist and Tran captures all of that beautifully
The most recognisable voice in the cast is definitely Awkwafina as Sisu the dragon. The actress follows in a long and rich line of mythical Disney sidekicks, and whilst she doesn’t make as much of an impact as the likes of Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy, she’s still great as the endearing, goofy water dragon who develops an array of powers along the way.
Overall, Raya And The Last Dragon is a really solid Disney adventure, one that packs more genuine action and thrills than most of the studio’s recent outings. You will love being taken from one beautiful land to another, the visuals really are something to behold. I fear these days that animated movies that aren’t musicals get lost in time because there isn’t a soundtrack that enters into the cultural zeitgeist. We’re still singing Let It Go nearly a decade on from Frozen, but I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation about Wreck-It Ralph. For the record, I like this movie a lot more than that one!