I’ve always found Disney’s way of embracing fantasy to be quite endearing and practical. Raya and the Last Dragon has an internal logic to work with, but it’s also an action-adventure-comedy set in a mystical world. It can have fun by way of contemporary dialogue rhythms and jokes while establishing its locations, cultures, magical elements. While the plotting comes a bit too close to matching what I’d expect from a multi-stage video game, there’s enough heart and style to make Raya and the Last Dragon come alive when it needs to and work overall as a consistently entertaining animated feature.
Something of note about this modern era of Walt Disney Pictures’ animated features – the stories are more or less focused on personal growth, unlikely friendships, and the strength of familial bonds, with romantic angles generally in the background. To say Raya and the Last Dragon, among other Disney features, are trying to be more like Pixar would be a misnomer. There are still fundamental Disney elements in place, along with a specific visual language that harkens back to the old days, even with the CG element in mind.
That’s important when considering the film’s hero. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) has skills established early on during a training session, where her younger self attempts to get past her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Her internal struggle is about learning to trust again, following an event that changes the state of the world that she at least partially sees as her fault.
During Raya’s journey to make things right, she finds Sisu (Awkwafina), a goofy water dragon with special powers and possibly the know-how to save the world. This is less a mismatched duo than something more along the lines of Aladdin and Genie. Raya is a more than capable warrior, and Sisu knows how to break the tension with her sense of humor. Raya and the Last Dragon gets a lot of mileage out of when to deploy its funny moments, which is especially helpful when subverting expectations while introducing new territories for the characters to explore.
From a story standpoint, while there are some new wrinkles to set this apart from, for example, Moana, one only expects so much narrative ambition from Disney at this point. At the same time, I see less importance in whether or not Raya can save the day and reconcile certain personal conflicts, and more value in what directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez-Estrada (Blindspotting) are accomplishing with the format. The goal was to make an exciting, female-driven action-fantasy film. The setting provides an Asian-influenced dystopia, allowing for both strong impetus for Raya to complete her mission and a level of representation only so much American-produced animation has been able to deliver.
It all comes together quite well. The action scenes are, suffice it to say, cool to watch. In particular, the capture of movement when it comes to the fights between Raya and her nemesis, Namaari (Gemma Chan), are thrilling thanks to an understanding of how to display who is in control of the scene at a given moment. The visuals are also top-notch and plenty colorful, as one would expect. Whether during big chases, explorations of the various lands, or in more intimate moments, there is a great sense of visual wonder to behold.
The score by James Newton Howard delivers as well. Fusing many influences ranging from kung-fu movies to sweeping dramas, Raya and the Last Dragon has a better identity carved out for itself thanks to the use of music. That’s especially helpful when considering the amount of heart that makes up the center of this feature. Again, while this is not a film breaking too much ground as far as Raya’s journey, there is an emotional journey, which is conveyed well thanks to elements such as the music, let alone what we get out of the friends she makes along the way. The way Raya relates to Sisu, let alone Boun (Izaac Wang), a young boat owner, Tong (Benedict Wong), a giant bear of a man, and a baby con artist (it’s clearer and funnier when seeing this in action), all allow for the film to do what one expects – make the audience root for things to work out.
While the locations are unique from one another, I do wish there was more going on in terms of the fairly straightforward objectives. It doesn’t slow the film’s momentum, but the pattern involving collecting various magical fragments only allows for so much malleability in the narrative. However, I was more than satisfied with several decisions made when it came to the film’s climax, allowing for a cathartic emotional release as everything wrapped up. I see that as the power a proper Disney film has when it comes to their most charming features that properly aim at all audiences for approval.
Plus, there are all those other things to enjoy. The film gets a lot out of Raya’s loyal steed, Tuk Tuk, which is like an armadillo and a pill bug (roly-poly) combined. Awkwafina has a lot of nicely delivered moments of humor to place her in the realm of other great comedic casting choices. Then, there’s the representation factor, with a predominantly Asian American cast and writers helping to build something special for a portion of the audience yet still working as an accessible animated feature.
Thanks to quick wit, thrilling action, and dazzling visuals, Raya and the Last Dragon make for a solid Disney package of fun. It’s the kind of film that pushes through its tropes to stun audiences with its presentation, with a hope that the level of heart at its core will help it go the distance with its many viewers. And who doesn’t enjoy a fun water dragon?