This review of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon contains spoilers.
Disney’s newest animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, takes the audience on an emotional, Southeast Asian-inspired adventure. The film takes place 500 years after the Dragons of Kumandra made the ultimate sacrifice, risking their lives to save humanity and using their remaining power to assemble a magical orb to fend off the malevolent Druun.
The movie, directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, introduces a new warrior princess. We first meet Princess Raya of Heart (Kelly Marie Tran) as a young girl, training with Chief Benja of Heart (Daniel Dae Kim) to become a guardian of the Dragon gem. During a gathering of all the tribes within Kumandra, Raya meets Namaari (Gemma Chan & Jona Xiao), the daughter of Chief Virana of Fang (Sandra Oh). The two bond over being self-proclaimed “Dragon nerds” and travel to visit the gem, only for a fight to ensue. Unfortunately, the orb breaks; as each tribe gets a piece for their land, the Druun return and turn every living thing in their way to stone, including Benja. The scene was emotional, leaving me in tears only 20 minutes into the story.
Six years later, Raya and her trusty sidekick, Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), embark on an adventure to gather the missing gem pieces. She aspires to put the orb back together, bring peace to Kumandra, and stop the Druun once and for all. She summons the beautiful Sisu (Awkwafina), the last living Dragon, in the land of the Tail and the two recover a piece of the gem which grants Sisu with shapeshifting powers.
Throughout her time on screen, Awkwafina’s comedic timing is on point. She expresses her naturally humorous and charming self, garnering all of the attention and becoming the star of the film.
“Maybe the world is broken because you don’t trust anyone.”
As the band travels together, Namaari is always on their trail, reminding Raya of her past weaknesses. She learns that trust will only make her vulnerable and allow others to stab her in the back. However, as the group grows larger, adding in a ten-year-old entrepreneur, a con-artist toddler with a trio of Ongis, and a fearsome warrior named Tong (Benedict Wong), Raya slowly changes her ways. Raya and her company begin to see that teamwork and having faith in others will bring the land together. There goes Disney again, always with their powerful themes and messages.
It comes down to the final piece in Fang, and Sisu is determined to present Namaari with a peace offering to receive the last of the gem. After a shocking turn of events, Sisu is gone, and Raya erupts in a fit of rage. The Druun return and they have no mercy. Chief Virana has suffered the consequences of the Druun, leaving Namaari in a state of sadness. Raya and Namaari battle one another, creating one of the most epic fight scenes in the film. Eventually, Raya leaves and helps her friends ward off the Druun and save as many people as possible.
The most important part of the film occurs soon after — the Druun are zooming in on the group, and they know they must assemble to gem immediately. Though the group refuses to trust Namaari, Raya takes the first step by giving her piece of the gem to Namaari and allowing the Druun to turn her into stone. That, to me, was a complete shock. However, it shows the character growth Raya has gone through since the beginning of her journey. The rest of her party follows suit until Namaari is the only one left. She puts the orb back together, places her hand on Raya’s shoulder, and succumbs to the Druun.
The tears were real here, my friends. This moment is high up there with the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. It also doesn’t help when the passionate score, composed by James Newton Howard, emphasizes the tone and emotion of the scenes leaving you a blubbering, sobbing mess.
The moment of truth — is this how the film is going to end? Even though the gem is back together, does it fail to work? The answer is… no.
The gem works its magic, bringing everyone back to life and eliminating the Druun for good. As a bonus, Sisu returns with the other dragons! Everyone reunites with their families, including Raya and her father. What a beautiful ending to his visually stunning and powerful fantasy.
Overall, the latest addition to Disney proves to be an immense success. The story is a moving sentiment of letting go of the past and putting trust and faith into others. Though you come into this world along, surrounding yourself with others that support you and want to help is the greatest gift life could ever give.
The representation and diversity in the film is outstanding. The voice cast is stacked with stars of Asian descent; however, rather than a group full of Southeast Asian heritage, most of the actors are of East Asian ancestry except for a few. As a result, this has caused controversy and uproar over the film because not all Asians are the same — there are distinct attributes that differentiate each sub-culture from the other. Next time, Disney should put more thought into this during the process and production of their film.
The writers of the film, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, are both of Southeast Asian culture. Nguyen is Vietnamese-American and Lim, who co-wrote the screenplay for Crazy Rich Asians, is Malaysian. To see such an inclusive environment exist outside the rem of actors is revolutionary.
Raya and the Last Dragon is now in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access. The film is rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements.