A fantasy adventure inspired by Southeast Asian culture starring a warrior princess with an epic sword? Without jarring musical numbers? Without a male love interest? Yes, yes, and yes. Raya and the Last Dragon seems to continue the rhythm of feel-good films that are still refreshing enough for both children and adults to watch. But does it always stay on the beat?
Meet Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior trained to protect the last piece of dragon magic in the land of Heart. The script quickly sets up Raya to “not be like other Disney princesses”. Though she joins the thin ranks of Disney warrior leads alongside Mulan and Moana, Raya makes a name for herself. Her journey from a trusting child filled with hope to a hardened dystopian warrior was wonderful and refreshing. Additionally, the lack of disruptive musical numbers allows the viewer to focus on Raya and her motivations.
However, it’s the “Last Dragon” part of the title where things don’t pan out as well. The dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) feels secondary to the story, despite her being the initial key to saving everyone from a monster plague. Though her purpose does get fulfilled, the film does not fully develop the relationship between her and Raya. Despite it serving as a catalyst for Raya’s battle with the true enemy, it ends up feeling inconsequential. It also feels like Awkwafina was trying too hard to invoke the energy of Eddie Murphy’s Mushu rather than giving her own original take.
Despite boasting a healthy 107-minute runtime, the pacing of this animated adventure does suffer at certain points. In fact, it’s most notable when it transitions in tone between acts. It does start off strong as a very colorful fantasy world filled with magic and lore that then perfectly shifts to a dystopian wasteland. However, what is briefly a fantastic Tomb Raider/Mad Max adventure quickly and clumsily transforms into an almost Dungeons & Dragons type band of misfits teaming up along the way to the end goal; bringing peace back to the land.
Once again, the movie does not devote enough time to create the emotional impact these characters need. However, what does unite them all is their collective loss and grief. They’re really only together to bring back someone they personally lost, just as Raya, whose primary purpose for the past six years since the loss of her father is to bring him back to life. There are many moments where these elements work. However, there are just as many moments that awkwardly fail at incorporating everything together.
Yes, this story is Disney’s tried and true formula. At the same time, it is still refreshing enough of a take to not feel fatigued. Raya and her best-friend-turned-nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) are the standouts of this film. Their complex relationship/rivalry over the years is the most interesting element of the entire epic. Within the first act, it is incredibly easy to hate Namaari due to her actions. But as we learn more about her, we find out she really is an antagonist because of their perspectives of the same tragedy.
The fight choreography between Raya and Namaari is one of the biggest highlights of the film. Quite honestly, it makes the Premier Access price tag all worth the cost. Taking heavy inspiration from both classic martial arts fight scenes and more modern choreography seen in the John Wick films, Raya and Namaari’s battles were electrifying to witness. My only complaint is that we didn’t get to see more of them interacting.
Despite its narrative shortcomings and blanket representation of Southeast Asian cultures, Raya and the Last Dragon is still a solid offering from Disney’s animated film slate. The story has simple yet compelling action, and the lore is colorfully whimsical. Best of all, it shows how strong women are multifaceted and not just one type of warrior princess. I think there is a bright future for animated storytelling at Disney and it involves diving into more diverse stories in order for them to reach a more than welcoming audience. – Ileana Meléndez
Catch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney Plus now, available with Premier Access!
The film stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang, Daniel Dae Kim, and Benedict Wong.