09th Mar2021

‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Review

by Jason Brigger

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim | Written by Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim | Directed by Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada

Raya and the Last Dragon, the most recent Disney film to not only be released in theaters but also on Disney Premiere Access, a paid service to allow viewers watch it 30 days early on Disney Plus (at least in the United States), is the Mouse’s strongest animated film since Moana. The film is beautiful to watch and features a story that is not only original but also embraces the fantasy world it creates. It’s well worth the $30 price tag and parents and children will fall in love with a new Disney classic.

The Plot:

Centuries ago in the magical world of Kumandra, dragons roamed free and lived in harmony with the ancient civilizations of humanity until the energy-sucking creatures that turn all they touch into stone, the Druuns, show up to cause havoc. In order to stop the Druuns, the last remaining dragons that were not turned into stone must combine their magic into a magical orb, the Dragon Gem, and the responsibility of unleashing the orb’s powers onto the Druuns falls on Sisu (voiced by the great Awkwafina) the water dragon. While the orb stopped the Druuns and freed the humans trapped in stone, the dragons were all still statues, except for Sisu. The water dragon feels she failed her species and goes into exile and never heard from again.

Fast forward five-hundred years and humans are living in five separated lands all named after a part of a dragon: Tail, Spine, Talon, Fang, and Heart. Each land is geographically and culturally different but they all have one thing in common, distrust of the other lands. Heart is led by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who is teaching his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), how to be a protector of the orb, like her ancestors. Benja realizes that even though they are protectors of the Dragon Gem, they must also attempt to change the world for the better and calls for a truce from all lands. As per the norm, each leader of their respective land is suspicious of Benja’s motives until the 11-year-old princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan), befriends Raya over their love of dragons. Unfortunately, it’s all a ploy to steal the orb and once the other tribal leaders find out about the attempted theft, they begin to fight amongst themselves and accidently break the orb into five pieces, unleashing the Druuns and turning the majority of the people, including Raya’s father, into stone.

Six years later and the world of Kumandra is a lonely, sad world with few people and fewer places for safety. Raya has spent the last six years exploring every river in Kumandra, looking for the mystical Sisu and attempting to steal back the broken pieces of the orb in order to stop the Druuns. Raya eventually finds Sisu, a fun-loving blue dragon that can transform into a human, but following them on their journey is a now an older Namaari, who is now in control of Fang’s army.

Namaari spends the majority of the film attempting to stop Raya and steal the stones for her own land but like many characters in the film, Namaari is not a stereotypical villain. In fact, we learn throughout the film, she’s not a villain at all but rather someone looking out for her own people and attempting to stop the Druuns on her own. She’s a strong leader of her people and the battles between her and Raya throughout the film are one of the many highlights.

Throughout Raya and Sisu’s journey of searching and even stealing the broken orb pieces, they meet diverse and unique characters in each land they explore, including a child chef, a Viking-like warrior, and even a con artist baby and her pet monkeys. Each of the characters have lost someone they have loved due to the Druuns but through their trials, they learn not everyone is who they appear to be, even Namaari, and only through trusting each other, they may be able to save the world and stop the Druuns. It’s a fantastic message and is explained so well, you never really notice the message until the end.

The Good:

  • Different Cultures. The film does a good job of presenting the subtle lesson that despite coming from different customs, we are all the same. Each character has their own distinct personality that relates to the society they grew up in without it being stereotypical. Even the dragons have their personalities and powers based on the area they lived. Each land has their own customs and different characteristics, as noted by the following:
    • Heart: A prosperous land, similar to China’s countryside, that houses the Dragon Gem, and brings jealousy from the surrounding lands
    • Fang: Namaari’s homeland inspired by Egypt, which is separated from the rest of the world by a man-made canal to keep the Druuns out, as they cannot come in contact with water.
    • Spine: A snow-covered bamboo forest land, inspired by Southeast Asia, that is protected by larger-than-life warriors.
    • Talon: A giant floating market that houses some less-than-desirable tradesmen, including thieves and con artists but also is the fishing capital of Kumandra.
    • Tail: Located at the end of the Dragon River, the land is a desert that used to be filled with mercenaries, until the Druuns arrived and decimated the land and the people.
  • Animation. The animation in Raya is gorgeous and the film is beautiful to watch. From something as subtle as the shine of the marble flooring in Chief Benja’s palace to the overgrown moss growing on the dragons trapped in stone, to the use of light and dark when fighting the Druuns, everything in the film stands out. It truly is a work of moving art.

The Bad:

  • Nothing. The film is an instant classic and nothing stood out as needing to be improved on. It’s not a perfect film but it’s darn near close.

The Middling:

  • The Druuns. The villains of the film, the Druuns, seem a tad weak compared to the character development of the rest of the characters in Raya. We never learn why these evil black-energy clouds really need to suck the energy from people and turn them into stone other than Sisu stating they are a plague on society, born from human malice. It’s a vague description with an even more vague reasoning of why these villains are well…villains. A little more background, possibly in form of a fable or a story passed on through the generations, would have made the Druuns stronger antagonists and would have provided a better reason for disliking them, other than them just being evil.

Final Grade: A (Amazing)

Raya and the Last Dragon is a fun and entertaining film that will be an instant classic, much like Moana and Frozen. The film is not only gorgeous to look at but the overall message of learning to trust people and we are stronger together than apart is a wonderful message to spread in the world, pandemic or not. While Raya and Sisu are the main leads, Namaari and the rest of the characters are well-established with good backstories while getting chances to shine, as well as steal the show. Raya and the Last Dragon is well worth your time and money, whether in theaters or at home, and adds another classic to Disney’s long list.

You can catch Jason Brigger on the geek-centric podcast, The History of Bad Ideas, as new episodes are released every week at www.nerdly.co.uk or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Amazon Music and other podcasting apps. You can listen to their latest episode right here.
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