Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest animated fantasy epic Raya and the Last Dragon recently hit big Disney+ and theaters, adding to the studio’s unforgettable lineup. With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Lion King, Aladdin, and more in their library, Raya and the Last Dragon has a lot to live up to. Does this computer-animated adventure stack up to some of the most iconic animations in movie history, or should it be banished forever like the Druun? Let’s adventure on to find out.
The animation in Raya and the Last Dragon is absolutely spectacular. The artwork is some of the most beautiful seen in any of Disney’s 3D animated movies. The colors and style work together to produce something truly whimsical that at times comes close to that of a Studio Ghibli film. This movie is nothing short of a visual masterpiece.
The unique world-building is nothing to be scoffed at either. The audience quickly learns a lot about the land of Kumandra. This includes what people eat, how they live their lives, the geography, and even how the rules of magic and dragons that exist in this world work. Disney successfully immerses viewers into this fantastical world as if it actually exists. Each village, named after a different dragon body part, feels like their own character in a sense. They each serve different roles in this land. It’s rare to see world-building this great outside of the likes of Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, or The Wizard of Oz.
Raya and the Last Dragon’s story feels like a true epic, similar to that of The Odyssey. It’s an exciting adventure that takes the protagonist, Raya, on a journey of six years to find Sisu and the gem pieces. This is a nice change of pace from Disney’s stories that take place over the course of a couple of days. It causes the story to have more weight to it. Plus, it’s a fun quest to go on with these characters. Traveling to different points in the world to find pieces of a gem to restore it and the world feels like the plot of old video games and Saturday morning cartoons many of us may have grown up with.
Every good children’s or family film usually has some sort of message or theme, and Raya and the Last Dragon is no different. This film offers a familiar-yet-important message about the impact of living in a divided world and how it’s worth it to try having more trust in each other. This message adds to the emotional weight of the movie and hopefully gets viewers to think about it in the context of their own lives.
There’s a wide variety of likeable and relatable characters throughout the film. They all either add to the humor or to the heart of the story. Plus, seeing such different characters interact with each other, like a fearsome warrior and a con-baby, makes for an extremely fun time. The voice talent behind these characters, including Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, show off their incredible talent as they bring their roles to life. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, there really needs to be an Oscar for voice acting. This film is definitely evidence of that.
With the movie focusing on Southeast Asian characters and on a fully fleshed out, badass female protagonist, the movie is full of positive representation for viewers young and old which is obviously always needed.
With most of their recent movies, Disney has had an annoyingly repetitive habit of revealing a surprise villain during the final act. However, Raya and the Last Dragon finally breaks that predictable trend. There’s no “classic-style” villain present, like Maleficent or Jafar, but the conflict revolves around the rivalry between each of the villages (with the help of the dreaded Druun). It’s nice to see Disney have a different kind of conflict than their last several movies.
Most of the conflict of the film stems from the terrifying Druun that turn people and dragons into stone just by touching them. This is a neat concept and all, but we know little about them. We never know why they’re evil or where they come from. They’re just these shapeless spirits who hang out near a land surrounded by water (even though they hate water) so they can turn things to stone for no apparent reason. For an important part of the movie, they just sort of exist when the plot needs them. Where so much of this world feels real, it’s disappointing that the Druun feel somewhat forced.
On one hand, it’s entertaining to see such a wide variety of characters in the movie. On the other hand, because there are so many, some important characters don’t quite get the screen time they may need. Tong, the last surviving member of Spine who lost his family and everyone he knew to the Druun, has the appearance of a hardened warrior but has a lot of heart. He doesn’t join the heroes’ quest until later in the film and doesn’t get the time needed to show his grief or how he dealt with it. Baby Noi became orphaned when the Druun took out her family, but she’s just used as comic relief, albeit great comic relief. The only real fix for this, though, would be for there to be more time in the movie or less characters, and it would be really upsetting to lose any of these delightful characters.
Some of the plot points become somewhat predictable, especially toward the end. It doesn’t necessarily make the story bad; it just makes it feel familiar. As unique as the world and the characters are, some of the story doesn’t quite feel as fresh and new as it could. Like I stated earlier, it’s fun that the story feels like that of a Saturday morning cartoon, but that means it feels a bit too much like stories we’ve experienced before.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a visual masterpiece with some of the most beautiful artwork and style Disney has put out with their 3D animated films. The characters are all a joy to experience this journey with and all feel unique and fully fleshed-out. The talented voice cast truly helps to bring these characters to life. The story may feel a little too familiar at times, but it is such a fun, epic adventure that it barely matters. The world-building for the land of Kumandra is so incredible that a viewer could probably memorize its geography and history.
We may not know quite enough about one of the main threats or get to spend enough time with certain major characters, but everything else works together so well that they make up for it. If you’re looking for a new fantasy adventure movie that takes place in a new setting with entertaining characters, or are craving the stories you’ve seen in cartoons and video games where the heroes quest to find magical objects to save the world, then Raya and the Last Dragon definitely needs to be on your watch list.