Note: The writer of this review watched Raya And The Last Dragon on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Though it was in production years before the pandemic changed everyone’s way of life, Raya And The Last Dragon truly feels like the first Disney blockbuster of the COVID era. Accidentally or not, this lavish animated production resonates with the collective grief of the world it’s being released into, inviting everyone to sit with that pain, even as it hints at brighter days to come. Helmed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, together with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, the film is still very much a Disney princess story (with nods to a Disney acquisition). But with its muted palette and infusion of Southeast Asian cultures, Raya also brings some innovation to that framework, while raising some of the questions we’ve all posed to ourselves as infection rates and death tolls rose: How did we get here? And how do we find our way out?
Raya begins in somber fashion. A lone rider sweeps across sun-washed vistas, almost faded to reflect a world increasingly drained of its life. She is Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who makes note of the dystopian setting in a somewhat winking voiceover: “How did this world get so broken?” Flashback to six years earlier, when her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), chief of the Heart Lands, brought together representatives from the other four lands: Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang. Together with Heart, these five nation-states, once collectively known as Kumandra, take their names from the parts of a dragon, though such a being hasn’t been seen in 500 years—not since the Druun, a malevolent and primordial entity, threatened to overrun human- and dragonkind alike. Benja’s attempts at diplomacy failed, which led to dire consequences for all the peoples of the former Kumandra. In the years since, even the landscape has been altered, creating a society of survivors—and opportunists.
This is the foreboding world that an adolescent Raya navigates with her trusty steed Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), a playful hybrid of a pill bug and (maybe?) a hedgehog. Instead of scraping by like Aladdin, Raya is on a quest to put the Dragon Gem back together and bring back those who were lost. This hunt for magical jewelry as a means to revive loved ones has shades of Avengers: Endgame, as do Raya’s interactions with fellow orphans Boun (Izaac Wang) and a cherubic-only-in-appearance baby (Thalia Tran). As the Druun continue to roam the countryside, turning people to stone, everyone left alive—including the behemoth Spine warrior Tong (Benedict Wong)—is in some stage of mourning. It’s a chillingly topical theme for a Disney adventure.
Raya is cast from the same enterprising, plucky mold as other Disney protagonists. She’s also left to make sense of the world with not much more than an impressive sword, a gem fragment, and the parting words of her father: “Don’t give up on them.” Tran takes Raya on the journey from preteen to young adult with aplomb, her voice dancing over the lighter moments before turning thick with emotion. The Star Wars alum imbues this latest Disney princess with pathos instead of the usual precociousness, but without skimping on the charisma. Her exchanges with Namaari (Gemma Chan), a Fang warrior princess and the film’s chief antagonist, often convey their shared past—namely, Namaari’s betrayal of Raya when they were children—through tone alone. Given how formative that experience was for Raya, it’s a shame that Namaari isn’t more fleshed out in the film’s present day. Chan’s performance hints at Namaari’s inner turmoil, but her motivations remain underdeveloped. The focus on the Druun, a force described as an “unrelenting fire” only capable of destruction, ends up also consuming some of the character’s nuance.
The screenplay, from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, rides a fine line between melancholy and buoyancy. No one bursts into song, not even to croon about their pain. But the found family that Raya builds with Boun, Con Baby (as the pocket-picking little tyke is known for a while), and Tong is marked as much by resilience as bouts of laughter and unexpected joy. No one embodies the latter like Sisu (Awkwafina), the dragon Raya rouses from a magical slumber. Even with the fate of the world at stake, Sisu finds time to make friends, shop for gifts, and slurp down bowl after bowl of shrimp congee. Her underwater frolic yields one of the most awe-inspiring sequences, as the muted palette and tone explode into vibrant hues and whimsy—a moment that recalls The Wizard Of Oz’s shift from black-and-white to color. Heralded as a Genie-like figure ahead of the film’s release, Awkwafina’s Sisu can’t find the many notes of the late Robin Williams’ performance in the animated Aladdin, nor quite match his zany energy. But Sisu’s boundless optimism is a type of magic in a story otherwise heavy with survivor’s remorse.
As it heads into its final act, Raya And The Last Dragon increasingly takes the form of a standard Disney fable, with big action sequences and even bigger leaps of faith. But on its way to a fairly conventional conclusion, the film offers a few inspired detours, too. In creating the lands of former Kumandra, Raya follows the cue of Disney Channel series Elena Of Avalor by taking inspiration from multiple countries. The swirl of influences from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines can be found in everything from the galvanizing fight scenes (which incorporate Muay Thai and Arnis, among other forms of martial arts) to the culinary delights that foster community among this chosen family. The reverent preparation of bún thịt nướng, the well-seasoned skewers, the overflowing bowls of lychee—they’re all homages to the exuberant food scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s films. This thoughtful treatment extends to the raiment of the various Lands’ leaders and Raya’s own attire, which includes a salakot, as well as her use of her father’s moro sword.
When Raya And The Last Dragon takes the time to ruminate on grief and recovery from trauma, it meaningfully distinguishes itself from the rest of the princess oeuvre. Just as unique as the film’s world-building is its sense of hope burnished by loss, not undermined by it. Only the Disney boilerplate messaging—believe in yourself/others—obscures the power of this moving tale and how it captures, intentionally or not, a specific form of sorrow.