REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and her nemesis, Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), face off amid the snowy mountains of Spine. Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021. — Photo: Disney.

Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) & Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) — Screenplay by Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians).

Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s Raya and the Last Dragon is an action-adventure film set in the fantasy land of Kumandra, which is inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, that has been divided into five tribes — Fang, Heart, Talon, Spine, and Tail — named after their placement on a giant river that flows through all of Kumandra. These tribes don’t see eye to eye, and they all covet a magical orb that was once created by dragons that have since been turned to stone by evil spirits known as the Druun. The Druun have disappeared because of the creation of the powerful orb, which is now protected by the Heart tribe, led by Chief Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) who still believes that the tribes can reunite and bring new life to the once glorious land of Kumandra.

But perhaps Chief Benja is too naive. When he invites the remaining tribes over for a large meal to discuss the future of Kumandra, Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan), the daughter of Fang’s chieftess, manipulates Benja’s daughter, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), into letting her see the orb up close. Although it seems like Raya and Namaari had a shared interest and a blossoming friendship, it is revealed that Fang had orchestrated all of this to steal the orb from the Heart tribe. In the sudden skirmish, which all five tribes participate in, the orb is accidentally shattered, and, as a result, the Druun reawaken and start turning the people of Kumandra into stone, including Chief Benja. Years later, Raya now searches for Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the only surviving dragon, as well as the coveted broken pieces of the orb, for the purpose of saving Kumandra, which may bring her father back to life.

One of the reasons why I think this film is so wonderful is for how it communicates its hopeful central theme. Raya and the Last Dragon is a film about trust. It is a film about finding a common ground. It is a hopeful film with a main character who has come to know that if you trust someone — if you reach out your hand — then that can be exploited. The Druuns, the film’s ghostly monsters, are basically manifestations of human selfishness and greed. When the people of Kumandra are overwhelmed by that unhealthy and selfish desire, borders are established, people keep to themselves, and their lack of unity makes them guarded and suspicious. The journey that our main character is on is about finding hope and about starting to trust people since history taught her father that we are stronger together. But not all of the chieftains have the hope or vision that Chief Benja has, and so, in a way, the film also tells us to be wary of the prejudices and warnings of previous generations and instead trust our like-minded peers to help us overcome challenges. Again, I thought the film did a magnificent job of communicating the central theme and of creating the bumpy arc that Raya goes on.

And that journey brings her all across Kumandra, which gives the film an amazing opportunity to showcase its excellent world-building. All of the different territories have their unique look. There is the post-apocalyptic Mad Max: Fury Road-like desert area ruled by the Tail-clan, while the gorgeously realized and vibrant Talon-territory is basically one big floating market. The beautiful but haunting Spine-territory basically feels like one big Samurai film, whereas a significant chunk of the section dedicated to the Fang territory — which is basically a gorgeous temple surrounded by water — feels like a fun heist film. Throughout the film, though, there are numerous sequences that make you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This brings me to one negative point that I do have about the film. While I loved this film from start to finish, there is no getting around the fact that it borrows a lot of elements from other films, and not just the ones that I have mentioned in this review. Some might even go as far as to say that the film is working off of a tried and true formula, but, all in all, I loved the way this adventure was executed and put together.

In each of these territories, Raya encounters different people that tag along with her on her journey, and I thought the cast of characters was really entertaining. For example, I thought that Izaac Wang’s Boun, the young owner of a boat restaurant, was just delightful and I wanted so much more scenes with him, and I also really liked what the film went for with Benedict Wong’s Tong, a giant warrior from Spine, who begins to open up as the film moves along. In the trailers, you’ve probably seen the toddler who is a con artist and that is also a very fun character to watch. But, when it comes down to it, the film is mostly about Sisu and Raya, both of whom are realized extremely well by their voice-actors. Awkwafina brings an exciting energy to Sisu that I thought was infectious in the best possible way, and I thought the wonderful and truly underappreciated talent, Kelly Marie Tran, did a wonderful job of helping to bring the Raya-character to life.

With state-of-the-art computer animation, the action in Raya and the Last Dragon is breathtaking. I really liked the way that the film brought different styles to life with a heist sequence and some kick-ass and hard-hitting fight sequences along the way. The film really feels alive in large part thanks to the way the action is animated. It’s thrilling when the camera moves with the waves of the water that Raya has been thrown into, and it gets the blood pumping when the gates of Spine open to reveal Raya as a lone warrior, who, later, walks resolutely towards the main temple of Fang while everyone else is running in the opposite direction.

In the current movie release landscape, there are winners and losers. Some movies will succeed as straight-to-streaming films during the COVID-19 Pandemic, while other movies may largely be ignored with such a release plan. Some films will thrive with a simultaneous release in theaters and on streaming services or premium video-on-demand, while other films may struggle to find an audience regardless of the critical reception. It is currently too early to tell what will happen to Raya and the Last Dragon, which was released in movie theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access (PVOD) on March 5h, 2021. I, for one, really hope that Disney Animation Studios’ latest fantasy action-adventure film will get a sizable audience and the proper attention that it deserves. Because I, frankly, think this is this animation studios’ best film in quite some time. Its entertaining cast of characters, its rich world-building, and the film’s stunningly animated action all help to make this a must-watch Disney film.

8.7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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