As with the best of Disney’s modern animated films, Raya and the Last Dragon takes viewers to a different world. The story is set in a fantastical and original world, loaded with distinct tribes, unique magic, and wondrous creatures. Disney films that dabble in the genre of fantasy always feel as though they must come with some caveat of the brand, either being a toe-tapping musical or irreverent comedy. It’s for this reason why Raya feels so refreshing for embracing a fantasy epic with great world-building, fantastic action, and an emotional core as powerful as the studio’s finest films.
Set in the realm of Kumandra, humans live a fractured life compared to how they were 500 years ago. Humans and dragons used to live in harmony until a dark magical force swept the land, forcing the dragons to sacrifice themselves to save humanity. All that remains of the dragons is a magical gem of their powers, acting as a repellent for the demonic forces that seek to transform all of humanity into stone. Rather than come together, humanity splinters into different tribes named after different parts of the dragon.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) lives among the Heart tribe which houses the all-protecting gem. Having grown up amid warring tribes, she believes the only path to peace is through violence. Her experienced father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), however, is hoping those days will be behind them, aiming for peace among the people. Raya’s wish for war sadly comes true, however, when the scheming Fang clan breaks the gem, thanks to the deceptive Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan). As the tribes fight over the fragments that will protect them, the world is consumed with dark magical forces once more.
We catch up with Raya a few years later, wandering the desolate world with her fully-grown armadillo/pill bug, Tuk Tuk. She follows clues and legends spoken of by her people and her father of one last dragon that can unite the world and drive back evil. The legends are true when she eventually discovers Sisu (Awkafina), a dragon awakened from her 500-year slumber. Though she’s a water dragon, her powers are somewhat limited as she admits she was more of the runt of the dragon litter. Only when the shards of the gem are retrieved can the wealth of dragon powers come about.
The film is pulsating with exciting action sequences and stunning fight scenes that carry real fury and skill. There’s a moment when both Namaari and Raya meet amid a crumbling kingdom with the intent to kill each other in an aggressive showdown. Surprisingly, however, the story boasts a message more of peace. Raya has grown up to be suspicious of the many tribes but soon comes to gain allies from their various lands. This includes the young and spunky entrepreneur Boun (Izaac Wang), the lost-warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), and a baby who has teamed up with monkies to be a thief. Through these various allies, Raya comes to learn how the coming of dark forces not only affects herself but everyone else as well.
Similar to Pixar’s Onward from last year, The Last Dragon is also a film about loss. Everybody Raya encounters has lost someone dear to them at some point in their lives, be it Sisu’s dragon family or Tong’s entire armada. As the film goes on, the story becomes more about trust to avoid further loss. It’s the lesson that Raya struggles to accept in tough times, seeming to make the eccentric honesty Sisu seem naive the way she places trust in everyone. This lesson becomes even more difficult for Raya to learn when a tragedy befalls the land and appears to render Sisu’s mindset unwelcomed. But the ultimate resolution of the film involves both sacrifice and a leap of faith in trusting in others. Such morals hit so hard that it’s surprising how much of a nail-biter this Disney film becomes.
I’m sure it seems redundant to mention this aspect but the animation is astounding. The movie sets up several tribes and makes each one of their lands have its own culture, color, attire, and outlook on how to run the world. Every creature from the wide-grinned Sisu to the cute Tuk Tuk all have unique and expressive designs to be more than just wondrous sights (which they are). The world of Kumandra is richly developed and never feels as though it’s drowning in lore to appreciate its stunning nature of towering forts and dangerous tombs.
Raya and The Last Dragon is one of Disney’s most ambitious animated films for taking more than a few risks. Free from musical numbers and the standard princess formula, it’s a fantasy that manages to present palpable adventure while still carrying a strong message of unity and courage. It’s a fully-realized adventure that is certainly a change of pace from the Disney Animation Studio’s bouncier features but a welcoming reminder that animation is capable of so much more than the studio’s standard commercial tropes. It’s hard to say just what kind of legacy such a film will hold but I have enough trust in its audiences that it’ll stand the test of time, past just selling some more merchandise. This is exactly the type of animated film Disney should be making more of to expand the horizons of the medium.