Between Disney’s live-action Mulan and its latest animated fare, Raya and the Last Dragon wins out every category. From its intricate and exciting swordplay to its detailed depiction of styles and cultures underutilized by the House of Mouse—even to its fathers who’ve been optimized for maximum tear-jerking abilities—Raya’s not just the better of the straight-to-Disney+ action-adventures, but one of Disney’s better serious-leaning animations. And you’d better believe it’s going to sell a lot of very cute plush dragons.
Disney’s first foray into a Southeast Asian environment blends its traditional “princess” movies with a trial-hopping quest like Kubo and the Two Strings. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), after a youthful tragedy leaves her father (Daniel Dae Kim) turned to stone and her land fractured, must hop from community to community—gathering up the pieces of a magical gem and new quirky team members—so that Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, can depetrify everyone and put the world right. This leads to a tour through the factions of Kumandra, who’ve only gotten more mistrustful, selfish and contentious since the dragons sacrificed themselves half a millennia ago to save the humans.
After some initial booby-trapping that might make you think the movie’s going to be a lot Indiana Jonesier than it is, Raya’s collection duties aren’t all that difficult. Opposing her are the loosely defined, evil purple gas monsters that literally rock people’s worlds and a whole Kumandraful of wary survivors. There’s a well-meaning but sloppily implemented lesson from writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim about trust at the film’s heart, explained almost like an argument for nuclear disarmament—basically, mutual animosity won’t improve if nobody’s willing to take the first step. But it’s all just an excuse really, to take us through some of the best visual work of Disney’s 3D era.
Environments are jaw-droppingly impressive, reflecting a lived-in world that’s mythology and culture inform its architecture. Whether hopping across crisscrossing canals or rolling through deserts on her trusty, roly-poly steed, Raya strikes a cool, imposing figure that still manages to stand out against the stunning scenery. She’s helped by some strikingly realistic animations that are impressive on Raya’s Disneyfied face and downright uncanny on her more photorealistic father. That they’re able to accomplish this technical step forward while mostly maintaining the overall aesthetic of the world is a subtle achievement.
But the fights—both in the choreography and in how the characters and their weapons interact with each other—are so engrossing that you almost wish the film was a full martial arts epic. Raya’s whip-sword rules, and the combat is smartly segmented into visually digestible stages and comprehensible motions by directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. In keeping with the adventurous spirit of the film, the music from James Newton Howard (who also scored two of Disney’s most rollicking affairs, Treasure Planet and Atlantis) is full of peppy blockbuster blasts with unique instrumentation. Raya might not get any songs, but she’s the first Disney princess to get into a full-fledged fist fight with her rival (Gemma Chan) and it’s awesome.
Tran sells it all with aplomb. She can throw a line away or choke back tears with the best of them, and the role gives her plenty of facets to embrace. Raya, made into a cynic by that formative event, is a complicated lead performance—heart-wrenching, charismatic, flawed, tough and ultimately lovable, she’s just as complex as you’d want a new Disney princess to be…especially if they’re not singing their way into your heart. This is all helped by her foil, the overly trusting oddball Sisu. The water-based dragon is downright cute. The gradient color scheme of the dragon’s fur gives her a natural, grounding element amidst cartoony, snaking movements and a truly mythical energy level. Very huggable. Awkwafina finds the comic and emotional beats well, but can’t quite convince when saddled with clunky mythological exposition. She and Tran compliment each other, however, as their chemistry develops along the film’s thematic arc.
Raya’s basically a movie carried by those two debating whether or not they should trust others, with the “others” scrappy enough to join them offering bits of color: Enterprising entrepreneur kid Boun (Izaac Wang, inspired) and hyper-gruff eyepatched hulk Tong (Benedict Wong, guttural and glorious) counterbalance the pair with appropriately endearing goofiness. The other members of the squad—a baby and her monkey entourage—are grating. They’re the kind of unassuming thieves/super-spies/acrobats that I’m tired of watching flip and smirk their way through animated movies. When your gag is done better by the dopey penguins in the Madagascar movies, you know it’s run its course. These con artists feel like the thing that’ll date the film the most, outside of some tinny dialogue about fandom that worms its way into the conversations and some lame one-liners from Sisu.
At least the other major part of the film that doesn’t quite work, its ending, is ambitious rather than contrived. The climax is where the film’s mashed and muddled themes (that say the real villain isn’t a person or people, but rather a lack of faith in people’s ultimate humanity) become as explicit as possible in a final confrontation between the characters and the bad clouds—described vaguely as the opposite of dragons and as growing out of humanity’s worst impulses. The way Raya chooses to twist that thematic knife is so shocking and escalatory that its target audience will only be a little more startled than the adults watching with them—a series of bold moves that needed far more investment in its characters and their understanding of the world’s magic, and less time devoted to complicated shenanigans and repeated gags. The sequence is still visually impressive, but its darkness is unearned and the light that ultimately prevails even less so. It’s not hard to get what the filmmakers were going for, but it’s where Raya’s combination of fairy tale structure and action movie stylings clash hardest.
But the plot’s one that’ll only benefit from the countless rewatches that Raya will merit from the younger crowd and the animation die-hards as they pick apart the bevy of styles that contribute to the film’s diverse visual collage and highlight the ultimate acceptance of diversity at the heart of the film itself. A splendid showcase for Tran, a lead duo of inventive and endearing original characters, and a big final swing make Disney’s tour through Kumandra one worth taking even if it’s shy of a tour de force. Raya and the Last Dragon is an admirably mature tale in a rich and vibrant world that parents and kids alike won’t mind trekking across over and over again.
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Writers: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim
Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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