Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Directors: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa
Screenwriters: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim
Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk
With the release of Raya and the Last Dragon comes a sigh of relief. A breath of fresh air. Finally a break from the needless live-action remakes and soulless continuations of once beloved franchises. At long last the most powerful company in all of Hollywood, Disney, has released a truly original movie, something that they have not produced since 2016’s Moana. Not an adaptation, not a sequel or a prequel or a spin-off. An original movie. Even when taking into account the output of Pixar, perhaps the company’s most reputable subsidiary, 2020’s Onward was notable as the first original production in three years.
The new feature from Walt Disney Animation takes place in the beautiful world of Kumandra, a fictional region peppered with South East Asian influences and filled to the brim with vibrant colours. Kumandra was once the home to both humans and dragons, yet when an evil entity known as the Druun threatened to wreak havoc throughout the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves in order to save the humans. 500 years later, the Druun have returned, and the young warrior Raya must set out on a journey to find the last Dragon and save her people.
Beyond the surprise that Raya and the Last Dragon is an animated Disney film that isn’t a musical, the most instantly striking aspect of this 2021 release is that it’s set in an animated world that feels incredibly lived in. Once a united land, now divided, each region of Kumandra has its own distinct style and personality. This lends itself well to the film’s gorgeous designs and breathtaking animation, each of which wonderfully compliment the fantastical story.
As for the story itself, Raya and the Last Dragon plays out like a blend of Mulan and Indiana Jones (the addition of a comedic dragon sidekick probably helps with the Mulan comparison), only more predictable than both. There are, of course, multiple twists and turns throughout the tale, and the film successfully emphasises just how serious Raya’s quest is whilst remaining funny enough to be a Disney original, but there is never much of a doubt about how the story will end; an element that may not be uncommon in animated cinema but does mean there is a noticeable loss of impact in otherwise powerful scenes on numerous occasions.
Although the film’s beautiful animation and exhilarating action sequences stand alone as two excellent reasons to watch this latest flick from Disney despite the narrative’s predictability, they are not even the film’s best qualities. Instead, the characters may very well take the cake as Raya and the Last Dragon’s ultimate offering.
With fantastic vocal performances from Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi), who is unrecognisable as the voice of Raya, and Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Level), who brings a humorous sensibility to the film’s titular last dragon, both lead characters feel distinct and interesting. Listening to the pair interact with one another and watching as their unique characters grow close to a loveable band of misfits is nothing short of joyful. Whilst some of their dialogue can be overly expositional at times, the chemistry of the group is the highlight of the film and truly the biggest gift from experienced directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, each of whom offered similarly as strong character dynamics through groups that highlighted diversity in previous releases Big Hero 6 and Blindspotting respectively.
All in all, Raya and the Last Dragon is the finest picture to be produced by Disney for a number of years. Its loveable characters and breathtaking animation prove that Disney still has something new to offer to the world of cinema; this latest release overcoming its own narrative predictability to become a sure-fire classic.