It’s terrific to see the animated movies continuing to evolve, and “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the latest film that takes the traditional idea of a Disney heroine and makes a huge leap into a welcome new direction. This magical fantasy / adventure tale features inspired characters, beautiful animation, and a culturally accurate representation of Asian mythology. It’s a terrific movie on all levels.
Long ago in the make-believe world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. There was a complete balance to the world until an evil force known as the Druun began to threaten the land. This sinister tribe of shadow monsters rose to power by feeding off the discord of humans, and the dragons decided to sacrifice themselves to save all of humanity. New unrest nearly 500 years later has resulted in the five divided lands of the kingdom refusing to co-exist in peace, giving rise to the Druun once again. Determined to preserve the world she loves, lone warrior Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) decides to track down the last living dragon and use its magic to save Kumandra.
Raya is a trailblazing heroine, and she’s one that’s easy to admire and love. Her determination never falters as she learns the value of teamwork and trust along her journey. The film’s main characters are all female, from the last dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) to Raya’s adversary Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan). There’s a magical relationship between Sisu and Raya, two unlikely friends that discover in each other that exactly little spark that each of their lives were missing. Even better, Raya collects a group of misfits along her journey, reinforcing the idea that heroes can come from the most unlikely places.
The film’s group of directors (Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, and John Ripa) has created original characters that are unlike others you’ve seen before, and the beautiful animation brings them to life. Sisu is a gorgeous pastel-hued dragon with a personality to match (Awkwafina is the MVP in the cast). Raya is a new kind of Disney “princess,” one who knows how to take charge and can kick butt. There’s so much for everyone to love here, even if some of the goofier gags (like a thieving baby who is far more irritating than cute) may take viewers out of the overall experience.
The story is exciting and the elements of mythical adventure are spirited, making “Raya and the Last Dragon” one of the more interesting films to come out of Disney in a while. It’s an animated feature with a positive, sincere message, lively action scenes, and a sweet tale of friendship that can be enjoyed by the entire family.