CERT: U / PLATFORMS: DISNEY+ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
As Walt Disney Animation Studios reach their 60th feature film (which will be this year’s Encanto), they find themselves at an interesting moment in time. As Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon not only finds itself released on the Disney+ streaming platform (via Premier Access), but the film also straddles a line between paying respect to the tropes of Disney’s classic age, while reflecting their diverse drive and voice of the modern day. Consequently Raya and the Last Dragon is a quite lovely Disney picture.
The story plays out in a mystic land formerly known as Kumandra, where generations prior the world’s protector dragons combined their powers to defeat a great rampaging evil known as the Druun. This power was contained by the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) into an orb, but humanity’s lust for this power fractured the realm into 5 different regions, with the orb sat at the heart of the land. 500 years on, princess of this Heart land Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her loving father (Daniel Dae Kim) seek to unite the many regions, and finally bring back the harmony of Kumandra. But old human struggles still persist, plunging the kingdom back into dark chaos, leaving Raya to embark on a journey to find the last dragon.
In so many ways a traditional studio offering but in a number of others very much current, with a warm message of trust and unity in times where they are perhaps needed most. Raya and the Last Dragon makes great use of Disney tropes for another action-ready princess yarn, and yet its heartfelt themes chime with the times. The setting and characters admirably are honest and/or flawed, with some hard truths about humanity brought to the centre of this strong story about pursuing peace, the rampancy of darkness and the impact of mistrust and division (and benefits of the opposites).
Some of the gags jar a touch, mostly thanks to the clash between the mythical setting and moments of teenage colloquial dialogue, then again this writer has only just turned 30, so maybe it is just early onset fuddy-duddyness setting in there! But this is a hopeful adventure, accompanied by absolutely beautiful visual power, bursting with splendid animated style and colourful absorbing spirit. While James Newton Howard’s score also captures some modern cool, as well as mystical power and enrapturing heart. This film would have been perfectly at home on the big screen.
Kelly Marie Tran excels as the voice of Raya, a driven young woman who is fuelled by a personal cause on her journey, a great person but one who is made brilliantly relatable by her own very human setbacks and fears. She is accompanied by a number of fun side characters like her armadillo/pillbug/pangolin Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) and a toddler con artist (Thalia Tran) and her animal sidekicks! There are also great turns by a charismatic Awkwafina as the voice of Sisu (who has an almost Eddie Murphy Mushu vibe but with even more spirituality), Benedict Wong as the lovable towering warrior Tong and Isaac Wang as energetic kid cook Boun.
Though it’s Gemma Chan as rival warrior princess Namaari, whose character really blossoms among the supporting cast throughout the film, and she becomes a darker reflection of sorts to Tran’s protagonist. Once again, it does mean we have a Disney flick here more focused on differing shades of hero, as opposed to a classic full blown villain, which is a trend I can see the reasoning for but at the same time is kind of puzzling, considering society as it currently stands and the ability to craft a really effective baddie from it. Though this film’s stance admittedly seeks less firm opposition and more coming together.
Raya and the Last Dragon is often dazzling, poignantly positive and just an exciting family adventure overall, one that feels triumphantly cinematic and occasionally spellbinding.