While Disney still has an amazing slate of films lined up for 2021, the studio’s first big movie release since Pixar’s “Soul” (my choice for the best movie of 2020) has finally hit Disney+ and the big screen. “Raya and the Last Dragon” was one of countless movies displaced by the pandemic last year but thankfully Disney decided not to delay it any further and we finally get to see one of the most engaging and thematically relevant Disney Studios animated movies in some time. Starring a mostly Asian voice cast, “Raya and the Last Dragon” takes place in the land of Kumandra which was shared by humans and dragons until the dragons sacrificed themselves to create a powerful orb to destroy an evil known as the Druun. 500 years later and the five kingdoms of the land are now fighting over the ancient treasure causing a chain of events that bring the Druun back. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the leader of the Heart Tribe, locates the only remaining living dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to help bring balance back to the land and destroy the Druun for good. It’s a fun fantasy tale that leans heavily on a lot of Disney-specific story beats and clichés, but it also proves once again why the Disney formula continues to work so well especially when paired with imaginative material.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” will feel very familiar to fans of Disney films because perhaps its one big flaw is how predictable and by-the-numbers it tends to be in terms of following the studio’s traditional formula. In fact I immediately started comparing it to “Moana” almost from the start and the comparisons to past films just kept going from there. You might think this is more than enough to call it a skippable mess right? Well, not exactly. In fact it actually works to “Raya’s” advantage because while this movie does embrace a lot of the Disney formula, it does so much more effectively than many of its predecessors. This is genuinely the first non-Pixar Disney animated movie I’ve wanted to rewatch almost immediately in over a decade simply because of how fun and engaging it was and how well is captured the Disney spirit while also finding its own identity. Considering the quality of films Disney has churned out over the last decade that’s a true compliment. “Raya’s” world and lore and the main conflict are all quickly spelled out in a clear but not-too-rushed manner that draws you right into the experience and keeps you on board for the entire nearly two-hour ride with little wasted time. Layered with action, effective levity, memorable side characters and important themes, “Raya” may feel like the prototypical Disney fantasy movie, but it’s actually so much more.
At the core of this film is an important message that feels extremely fitting for today’s day and age and maybe would have been even more relevant had it been released in its original November 2020 time slot. “Raya’s” story sees five tribes of a once-united nation fighting over a treasure they believe to be a powerful symbol that brings success to its holder. Raya’s tribe, the Heart Tribe, is the protector of that artifact that is eventually broken, dividing the nations further and releasing the dark Druun’s which represent the darkness and division of humanity that is a plague on the land. In addition Raya herself suffers from a lack of trust due to a series of events that leads to the treasure’s destruction and subsequent division among the tribes who, even with a piece of the orb, still choose to hate each other rather than unite. So we have two intertwining themes: one of division and one of distrust and the lesson we’re meant to learn is that division only leads to the downfall of all and people can and often do change and deserve a chance to atone for their past misgivings. In an era where society feels more divided than ever and where the court of public opinion often denies people the right to atone for their past misgivings or show their growth from who they once were these themes feel like extremely relevant ideas especially for a children’s film. The cool thing is the film embraces these themes seamlessly in the context of its story, teaching us a lesson without making us feel we’re being beaten over the head with it. That said story contains no real villain beyond the mindless Druun’s often giving characters, including Raya herself who is possibly one of the most openly flawed heroines in the entire Disney lineup, a chance to be flawed and learn from their mistakes while embarking on a fun and well-paced journey that is among Disney’s more engaging in recent memory.
I have to give props to the animation and voice work as well which together create a lively and stunning animated picture that brings together everything Disney has worked so hard to perfect in their attempts to live up to Pixar’s visual style and thematically rich storytelling with their own studio. Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong and others make up an awesome cast of unique characters that feel like the most complete group of heroes and anti-heroes Disney has produced in a while. The highlight for me though was Awkwafina who steals the show as the dragon Sisu bringing her infectious energy to the screen in one of my favorite roles of her’s to date. I really enjoyed all of these characters, the backdrops, and the pacing of the story. This movie to me was the full package. It’s everything great about Disney and then some which is why I don’t give it so much flack for being cliché. I’ve always said on this blog that I judge movies not by how cliché they are but how well they utilize those cliches to tell their own stories and “Raya” is a perfect example of a film that does it right bringing out the best of the Disney formula and even overshadowing the studio’s past successes as a new standard bearer in my eyes of how timeless Disney’s formula and story beats can continue to be. I loved the “Frozen” movies. I very much enjoyed both “Wreck It Ralph” movies. “Moana” was amazing. “Tangled” was a fine return to form and “Zootopia” was a special gem that also commented on modern times. “Raya and the Last Dragon” however may be, in my opinion, Disney’s best attempt in years at creating a film that’s insightful, imaginative, fun and instantly rewatchable all at the same time.
With all that said it’s no surprise I thoroughly enjoyed “Raya and the Last Dragon”. This is one of the most memorable Disney movies I’ve seen in years which is a huge statement considering how great the studio’s offerings were in the last decade. If those movie ushered in a new era of quality for Disney, this movie further ups the standard in terms of balance, visual flare and imagination. From the voice work to the animation to it’s shameless but inspired use of the Disney formula, everything about this movie worked for me. Topping it off are the relevant and, in my opinion, extremely important themes that the world needs to see in today’s day and age. Messages about unity in the face of divisive times and being able to forgive and allow people an opportunity to redeem themselves (within reason of course) are lessons that not only kids need to learn and understand, but frankly the adults as well. We’ve forgotten what it’s like to be brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends…we’ve forgotten the lesson of he without sin casting the first stone especially when judging those based on surface assumptions rather than intent. This movie is a pleasant and enjoyable reminder of how important it is to rekindle that unity and be willing to let each other grow and improve as people. Everybody wants to change the world for the better, but we’re better doing it united than apart. It’s a great film with a great message and a new personal favorite of mine in Disney’s legendary library.