Releasing in theaters and on Disney+ with Premiere Access beginning March 5th is the new animated movie Raya and the Last Dragon. Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) and written by Qui Nguyen (Dispatches from Elsewhere) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians), the film stars Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Raya, a fearless warrior princess and Awkwafina (The Farewell) as Sisu, the last dragon in existence. In addition to Tran and Awkwafina, the animated film also features voice performances from Gemma Chan (Captain Marvel), Sandra Oh (Sideways), Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange), Alan Tudyk (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), and Daniel Dae Kim (Lost). The result is a stunning piece of animation infused with classic Disney humor that draws inspiration from Southeast Asian culture and beloved action movie franchises like Star Wars, Mad Max, and Lord of the Rings.
Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived in peace before a monster known as the Druun was unleashed, turning both to stone. To save the humans, the dragons sacrificed themselves by transferring all their magic into a stone called the Dragon Gem, which defeated the Druun and restored the humans to life. Five hundred years later, the lands of Kumandra have been divided, and Chief Benja (Kim) of Heart Land and his young daughter Raya (Tran) are now the Guardians of the Dragon Gem. But when Raya’s friend from the Fang Land, Namaari (Chan), betrays her, the gem is broken, and the Druun are released once again.
With a shard from the gem in hand, Raya sets out to find Sisu (Awkwafina), the last of the dragons. After five years, Raya locates Sisu, and they join forces to locate the rest of the gem’s pieces and use them to destroy the Druun. On their journey, they team-up with a motley crew that includes a giant named Tong (Wong), a 10-year-old boat captain named Boun (Izaac Wong), a con-artist toddler named Little Noi (Thalia Tran), and Raya’s pet, Tuk Tuk (Tudyk). But to succeed, they will have to battle Raya’s frenemy, Namaari, and her mother, the leader of Fang Land, Virana (Oh).
While Raya and the Last Dragon is definitely suitable for children of all ages, it does seem geared toward older kids and adults, which is probably why I liked it so much. It is action-driven and character-driven and touches on universal themes of family, tradition, culture, and especially trust. The action sequences are impressive, and you often forget that you are watching animation.
Although the story takes place over centuries, it is not confusing and moves at a breakneck pace. Not only are Raya’s action scenes impressive, but so are the dragons, which take an almost magical “unicorn” type form in the film. In fact, the dragons’ design was a strong choice, as they are depicted as furry and loveable creatures rather than reptilian and scary as you might be used to from watching Game of Thrones. If I have any criticism at all about the film, it’s only that it is slightly predictable at times, although there are a few twists thrown in to the third act to keep you on your toes.
In addition to great action and animation, the movie injects just the right amount of classic Disney-style humor but never dumbs down the sincerity and authenticity of the story and the characters. Awkawfina adds the most humor as Sisu, giving a performance reminiscent of Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin or Eddie Murphy as Donkey in Shrek. Again, she adds just the right amount of smart humor without it becoming silly or too childlike. If this film is as big a hit as I think it will be, then this will be the role that takes the actress’ career to the next level of superstardom. Also adding humor are Izaac Wong and Thalia Tran, as Boun and Little Noi, respectively, and along with Sisu, will be the breakout characters of the movie.
Another strong thread in the film is the father and daughter relationship between Raya and Chief Benja, and Daniel Dae Kim brings an emotional grace to the role. The lessons he has taught his daughter and her love for him are integral to the story and at the heart of the film.
As important as Awkwafina’s performance as Sisu is to the movie, the film really hinges on the friendship between Raya and Namaari and their broken trust. Gemma Chan gives a strong performance as Namaari and plays her character not as a villain but rather just as someone with the wrong perspective. Kelly Marie Tran absolutely shines as Raya, bringing a character full of light and love and overflowing with confidence and inner strength. Raya and the Last Dragon is just a lot of fun and one of the best Disney animated non-musicals ever made. With a strong story and theme, lovable characters, great performances, beautiful animation, and glorious action sequences, Raya and the Last Dragon is a triumphant film that will be fun for the whole family to watch for years to come.