Disney’s latest animated film arrives this week (March 5th), bringing with it an all new hero, impressive world-building, and a lot of fun. While it’s not perfect, Raya does a whole lot of things right. Let’s talk more in my review.
The world of Kumandra is shattered. Where there was once harmony, five separate lands now stand divided and at each other’s throats. Now, with the revival of an ancient supernatural enemy, much of the world feels desolate; almost akin to a post-apocalyptic wasteland…
It wasn’t always that way, however. In the distant past humans and dragons lived together in peace until monsters known as the Druun arrived, turning innocent people to stone and stalking the land. Even the powerful magic of the Dragons weren’t enough to stop them, until the final remaining one used an orb, the Dragon Gem, to banish the Druun once and for all.
What should have brought the people together, tore them apart. In the 500 years since the last Dragon, Sisu, saved them, the nations of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail have stood apart. All of them are envious of Heart, the land where the Dragon Gem resides as they feel that lingering bit of Dragon magic is what makes them so prosperous.
When an event meant to try and unite the lands goes wrong, the Gem is unwittingly broken and the Druun are unleashed once more. Raya, raised to be a Protector of the Gem, now travels the lands, chasing a legend to find the Last Dragon, Sisu, gather the fractured pieces of the Gem and return Kumandra back to what it once was. With the help of a dragon who isn’t quite as regal as Raya imagined, her own considerable skills, and the help of some new friends along the way, she’ll have to do the impossible to fix the world.
I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers here, so I think I’ll leave the plot details at that. In many ways, it’s a far grander story than I initially thought it would be. The setup is something straight out of mythology and sets the stage for an epic adventure that’s one part post-apocalypse and one part sword and sorcery. Even among that, however, there’s a more intimate story being told that engages you to the characters on a far deeper level.
If you hadn’t gathered from the trailers, Raya and the Last Dragon is among Disney’s non-musical animated affairs. Instead it takes us on a fantastical (yet surprisingly dark at times) journey told via impressive Martial Arts action and some sweet, sweet mythology.
In simple terms, I absolutely had a blast watching it and it offered more than enough humor and action to keep my youngest (4) entertained throughout. That’s not to say I didn’t have some problems with it, but I’ll get to those in a bit.
The Animation – Raya and the Last Dragon is a gorgeous looking film. It incorporates many traditional Southeast Asian art aesthetics (the land in which Kumandra takes its influence), into a stunning style that flows off the screen. Each land Raya and her gang travel too bring their own distinctive feel to it, ensuring that each part of the film is a treat for your eyes in a number of different ways.
Beyond that, however, I can’t help but remark on how IMPRESSIVE the animation is on a technical level. The water and hair look insanely realistic and among some of the best I’ve seen rendered (in either animation or live-action films). Sisu’s fur looks fluffy enough to touch through the screen and some of the water sequences took my breath away.
The Performances – I loved the voice work in this film. Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya is instantly relatable and brings a genuine charm/realism to the character. Awkwafina’s Sisu is hilarious and plays off of Raya in some fun ways. Honestly, so much of the dialog between them felt natural and unscripted, like they just bounced off one another perfectly in these roles.
Gemma Chan’s Namaari strikes an excellent balance between friend and foe, making her antagonistic behavior nuanced and intriguing. There’s really not a performance I can think of that didn’t work or bring something unique and strong to the story.
Tuk Tuk – Raya’s roly poly-esque creature is amazing and I want one in real life. That is all.
The Action and Humor – I mentioned this already, but the action in the film is pretty strong. I love Martial Arts movies and while that isn’t the primary focus of the film, there plenty of fight scenes in the film to enjoy. The choreography in these are strong, making them feel realistic while incorporating some unique aspects that add some extra oomph to them. I never thought I’d have so many “holy shit” moments in a Disney film, but here we are.
This action is balanced out wonderfully by the humor in the film. The jokes come naturally, playing off the dynamics of the characters without feeling forced in there for the sake of being a “kids movie.”
The Setting – I LOVE the world they’ve built for this movie. Between the cultures of the various people, the mythology/lore established, and the visuals, Kumandra feels like a living and breathing world. You get a sense for the history being referenced, even if you don’t see it, and my mind has been churning over ideas and stories inferred via their interactions. It just felt so alive and I immediately found myself wanting more stories set within this wonderful world they’ve created.
The Themes – I don’t want to say too much about how the overall themes of the film come into play (as it could delve into spoilers), but know that they are powerful. Managing to be poignant and relevant to our own world, the overall theme forms the backbone of some of the more emotional moments in the movie.
What Doesn’t Quite Work
There’s really only one thing that really didn’t work for me in the film and I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to pin down exactly the cause. It feels like a mix between the story being told and the pacing.
In some ways, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like a much bigger story than the screen time given to it. The sprawling quest, which manages to feel immense and epic, seems to go by almost too quickly. The ultimate conclusion it reaches, while hitting all the right emotional notes, doesn’t feel completely earned by some of the characters. There’s a part of me that couldn’t help but imagine this story played out over a lengthier TV season. It’s grand scale begs for more.
The story moves along at a brisk pace, with each bit of exposition and character moment used to drive us forward. That said, the pacing still seemed off just because I found myself wanting just a little bit more from certain characters or moments. At the same time, I couldn’t tell you where those moments should have gone. It’s not like there were any wasted scenes in the film, which could have been used better or swapped out for something else.
Like I said, it’s a hard gripe to pin down. It either needed to scale down the epic vibe it gives off, or needed more time to fully go whole-hog on it.
Regardless, the overwhelming feeling I’ve had in the days since watching, is that I very much want more stories set within Kumandra. The world-building the filmmakers achieve, is nothing short of astounding. It’s vibrant and filled with stories waiting to be told. Hell, I would VERY much love to see a video game around these lands and characters. When a film makes you want to stay with the characters/world it presents, it’s hard to see that as anything other than a success.
Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s latest hybrid release. It will be hitting both theaters (ones that are open) and Disney Plus Premiere Access. Of course, the big question many have is whether or not it’s worth the $30. Personally, speaking….Absolutely. Especially if you have kiddos in the house.
Mine youngest has already asked to watch it again, and again. She was enraptured with the story (as many kids get with Disney titles), so it seems a safe bet to say you’ll be throwing down $30 for multiple viewings and will certainly get your money’s worth. While I can’t, in good conscience, recommend heading to a theater, if you’re at a point/location where it is SAFE to do so, you’re in for a good time. Either way, Raya and the Last Dragon is worth checking out and I hope it does well enough to get more adventures down the road.