Disney's latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon is a groundbreaking film. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the film is the first from the studio to feature a Southeast Asian Disney princess and center its story in the culture of the region. Set in the fictional fantasy world of Kumandra, the action-packed film tells the tale of a broken world and its divided people shattered from not only their distrust of one another, but a terrible threat destroying life as they know it and a young woman, Raya, determined to find the legendary last dragon and, hopefully, restore the world. It's a story deeply steeped in the culture of the Southeast Asian region, but even with the rich and long overdue cultural representation, Raya and the Last Dragon is an exquisite and universal film that offers viewers not only a beautiful story but a message for everyone no matter where you’re from.
In Raya and the Last Dragon, the world of Kumandra once was one where humans and dragons lived in harmony, but 500 years before the events of the film, creatures known as the Druun wreaked havoc on the people, prompting the dragons to sacrifice themselves to save humanity with the dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) channeling the dragons' magic into a gem that stopped the Druun. When the dragons did not return, the people of Kumandra divided over the gem. Centuries later, chief of Kumandra's Heart region Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) is the guardian of that gem, with his daughter Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) set to be the next generation's guardian. However, conflict over the gem triggers the return of the Druun, prompting Raya to go on a journey to find Sisu and, hopefully, defeat the Druun to reunite Kumandra once more.
From the premise, it would sound like the film is a straightforward action-adventure, but the film quickly reveals itself to be that and much more. It's apparent pretty quickly that Raya -- and indeed all of the people of Kumandra -- have trust issues. For Raya, it’s rooted in her relationship with Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), a warrior princess from Kumandra's Fang region who was a childhood friend of Raya's who betrayed her. As Raya goes on her mission to try to restore Kumandra, it's Namaari who is on her trail as Raya goes from region to region to complete her mission. Along the way, Raya finds unexpected allies, but it is difficult for Raya to trust her new companions -- Boun (Izaac Wang), a young boat restaurant owner from Tail, Tong (Benedict Wong), a warrior from Spine, and Little Noi (Thalia Tran) a "con baby" with her ongi companions from Talon – because of Namaari’s earlier betrayal even though these companions are invested in Raya’s mission and have also suffered great losses to the Druun. Balancing Raya's jaded distrust is Sisu's boundless faith with the dragon consistently urging Raya to see the best in people, firmly believing that it is only working together that anything can be changed. Sisu is the one person Raya seems to believe in, though at times she even has difficulty trusting her.
What is beautiful about this film is that nothing in the premise or Raya's journey feels false. Her pain, her lack of trust, and even her hope all feel genuine to her experiences as does her relationship with Namaari. Female friendship and relationships are often portrayed in cliches or are under-developed in film, but Raya and the Last Dragon offers up rare authenticity. The relationship between the two women evolves throughout the film in a rich, and powerful way. Also beautifully done is the friendship between Sisu and Raya. In fact, each of the characters and their interconnected relationships are presented in a way that shows humanity in even the most divided of people, reminding that even for our differences we are still people. It's something that easily makes Raya and the Last Dragon one of the best pieces of storytelling that Disney has ever done.
Also fantastic about this film is the world it creates. Kumandra looks and feels like a real place and a large part of that comes from how connected the fictional world is to the real-life culture of the Southeast Asian region. The clothing, weapons, architecture, and especially the food all are based in the real world. The food in particular is a subtle, but brilliant element that helps bring people and the story together in a way that both highlight the unique differences in each region. In terms of detail, the action sequences in Raya and the Last Dragon are also outstanding with their realism and are perhaps the most authentic in any animated film. They look and feel very, very real.
It's the richness of detail and the realness of Raya and the Last Dragon that makes the film such an immersive delight, but the performances from the impressive, all-Asian cast (except for Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, Raya's pill bug-like friend, and steed) are all standout. Much will be made of Awkwafina's incredible Sisu -- at times it's like she's channeling Robin Williams' Genie -- but Kelly Marie Tran's Raya is a revelation, imbuing the character with heart and hope even for all of her brokenness. Gemma Chan humanizes Namaari in a way that is just stunning to witness, and not enough good can be said about Izaac Wang's larger-than-life Boun and Thalia Tran's Little Noi. Every single performance in this film is perfect.
Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon offers up everything viewers could want in not just a Disney film, but a film in general. Full of culture, nuance, beautiful animation, stellar performances, and a message of trust and of hope that feels more timely than ever, Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantastic film that is easily one of the best in years. There is something for everyone in Raya and the Last Dragon, no matter how different or distant we are.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Raya and the Last Dragon opens in theaters where available and debuts on Disney+ Premier Access on March 5th.