Every year whenever a Disney animated feature is slated to be released whether it’s just Disney or a Pixar film, that film is instantly one to be looked at as a most anticipated of that year. Last year, the year we all wish to forget, gave us 2 films in Onward & Soul – both incredible in their own right but in my opinion, Soul is the better film even though I Identified more with Onward. For each one of their animated films, Disney makes the best effort to be inclusive, representing all races, creeds, colors, cultures and beliefs in their characters. Raya and the Last Dragon not only represents people of Southeast Asia but is the next strong female led animated character to be a Disney Princess.
Raya and the Last Dragon is beautiful, from top to bottom, scene to scene. The animation style alone brings a crisp realism to the forefront with an extravagant color palette that jumps off the screen. With every animated film, the animation just gets more realistic and vibrant pushing past the boundaries that the previous film seems to achieve. Asian culture is on full display here – directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada capture the essence and beauty of the culture while not going too stylistic with the animation. It’s perfectly balanced within the realm of the story that’s being told.
And it’s the culture that draws you in – it certainly captured my attention; I’m fascinated with Asian culture and the mythology and dense history the south pacific has. That’s one thing Disney nails in Raya and the Last Dragon – the lore and mythology, the exposition of a fictional country, making it impossible to believe this place doesn’t exist in the world. It’s not the first time Disney has created a rich backstory for their films, look at Moana, Coco as a couple of examples. Though fictional, the inspirations are clear and present which makes these films easy to be engulfed in.
What is striking about the animation in Raya and the Last Dragon is how minimalist the look and feel of the design is while staying true to the asian cinema traditional style. With how little there may be in certain scenes, the attention to detail stands out immaculately. How gorgeous would a black and white version of Raya be. I’d watch it exclusively in that color palette.
Like Marvel, Disney has a formula they tend to follow with their films. It’s less assembly line like and more thematic with their formula. Meaning, each Disney and Pixar film features the same theme, among others: Family. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father Chief Benja or Ba (Daniel Dae Kim) only have a few moments together but their bond when together is electric. In those few moments they share, you can feel the love and connection Ba has for Dewdrop. Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim easily establish the emotional weight which pays off between the two as well as between the other characters.
Honestly, I would love a spin-off of each supporting character and their home part of Kumandra. Each character can easily hold their own in their own film or series.
When all is seemingly lost in the world when the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) banishes the Druun, Raya finds family in those meant to be enemies. That theme of family applies to characters not related to one another in which the script forms instant bonds between these characters. Boun (Izaac Wang), Namaari (Gemma Chan), Tong (Benedict Wong) & Little Noi (Thalia Tran) are all given enough attention and backstory to form emotional connections with.
The talent of the voice cast is special. Every character is written excellently but it’s the voice cast that brings them to life with all the personality that’s necessary to make each character unique. The standout I think is Awkwafina – her charisma pours out of her character. I was worried at first that Sisu would be too similar to Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy) from Mulan (1998) borderline derivative, but I was pleasantly proved wrong. Awkwafina provides the comedy and the innocence in the story while not going too overboard with it all. There’s a perfect amount of comedy that is balanced with the seriousness and Awkwafina never goes too far with her dialogue and delivery. Kelly Marie Tran on the other hand is the heart and soul of Raya and the Last Dragon.
What works well in Raya and the Last Dragon is the symbolism of the dragon to Asian culture. The belief is the dragon is a symbol of power, strength and good luck to those who deserve it as well as symbolizing potent powers surrounding water and rainfall (as set up in the opening sequence). The look and feel of the dragons are powerful in Raya’s visuals – whenever Sisu is on screen, the design is stunning.
Along with the theme of family Raya and the Last Dragon’s message centers around trust and belief specifically with those who have different opinions. The 5 tribes of Kumandra – Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon & Tail all don’t agree or see eye to eye with one another (pretty spot on to how the world is today). But it’s how our characters are able to come together, put their differences aside to save the county that gives hope, making this story so poignant in its message.
Every aspect of Raya and the Last Dragon is nothing short of spectacular. From the pacing to the character design to the gorgeous landscapes and homage to the countries Kumandra is based off of to the fast paced drum heavy score by James Newton Howard, everything has an authenticity to it. Raya and the Last Dragon is one of the better Disney films released in the past few years that will leave a lasting impression the way others that have come before it has.
Raya and the Last Dragon is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada is Rated PG and has an 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Raya and the Last Dragon was released on March 5, 2021 in the United States and has a runtime of 1 hour and 57 minutes. Raya and the Last Dragon can be streamed on Disney Plus. 4.5 out of 5.