There are two essential components to creating a successful Disney animated film. They aren’t show-stopping songs or cute animal sidekicks. It isn’t bright colors or great jokes. To make a truly effective, affecting Disney film, you need emotional vulnerability tempered with darkness. The characters need to experience the dark side of the world in order to grow and to fully understand the light and dark sides of themselves. This is one reason why the popularity of Disney’s villains sometimes rivals that of their heroes. Without the darkness that a Maleficent or Ursula brings, the heroes have nothing challenging them to evolve.
But what if the darkness is not an external force but an internal one? What if the villain is our own shadow self and negativity? This is at the core of Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s latest animated feature and a bold shift in direction for its princess franchise.
The land of Kumandra is a broken place, divided into five nations constantly at war with each other. At one point, they were whole until evil creatures called the Druun appeared. The Druun destroy everything they touch and turn people to stone. The magic of dragons once kept them at bay, but only one dragon remains in the world after constant attacks by the Druun. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), the daughter of the chief of the Heart tribe, is on a desperate quest to find Sisu, the last dragon (Awkwafina) so she can restore the land and stop the Druun for good. She faces opposition from the Fang tribe’s Namaari (Gemma Chan), an old friend who betrayed her years ago and seeks the dragon for her own nation’s benefit.
Namaari isn’t the real antagonist of the film, however. Both Namaari and her mother, Chief Virana, come off more as ruthless and pragmatic than they do outright villainous. The true enemy of the film is Raya’s own doubt, fear, and lack of trust in others.
Just about everybody in Kumandra has experienced loss thanks to the Druun, and the responses to it are as varied as the individuals themselves. Raya’s father had a dream of uniting the tribes, something Raya herself believes to be impossible. Her main goal is to bring back her father, turned to stone by the Druun. If she saves the world in the process, that’s a bonus. Namaari for her part wants the dragon to ensure her people are protected, even at the cost of everybody else’s safety. Both characters have noble intentions that are clouded by their own immediacy and self-interest.
This stands in sharp contrast to Sisu herself, who comes off as relatively naive and optimistic in a place where those qualities are not highly valued. Having been asleep for years, she’s unaware of how the world works. Her openness comes off both as inspiring and dangerous; it shows how things could be, but it also serves to get her and her companions into trouble as well. Thanks to Sisu’s innocence, we end up seeing just how cynical and dark Kumandra has become thanks to the Druun’s presence.
The internal, emotional journeys in the film end up being far more interesting than the actual plot of the narrative. The story itself is relatively thin. Raya travels to one of the tribe’s lands, meets a new party member, has a conflict, and finds a piece of the crystal Sisu needs to restore her powers. Rinse and repeat. It isn’t until the final act, when this pattern is broken, that the story rises up to meet the emotional beats.
The journey there isn’t boring, though. The visuals are fantastic, with vivid colors and dynamic compositions. Kumandra is based on South Asian landscapes and culture, and it’s an utter delight to travel through. The action scenes are engaging and well-done, even if they’re rarely innovative, with characters’ fighting styles based on actual Asian martial arts. The character designs strike a fine balance between stylish and natural, most perfectly seen in Namaari’s hip undercut and unique jewelry. Sisu’s design itself is an ideal mix of traditional Asian dragon and adorable Disney sidekick, which is only amplified in her shapeshifted human form.
One of the film’s most winning aspects, though, is the characters and voice cast. Raya’s companions include a 10-year-old chef, a con-artist toddler, and a soft-hearted barbarian. Her party is so unusual and unique that it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time with them, although they all get moments to shine, especially during the climax. Each one reflects a different coping mechanism to the pervasive loss and grief in Kumandra, and each one provides Raya a different mirror in which she examines her own reactions to the world.
Raya herself is a compelling hero for this story, and a highly sympathetic character even when she makes poor decisions or gives in to her negativity. It’s because we understand the context of her situation that draws us in; she’s a complex person who’s dealing with more than she should at her age. And she’s voiced perfectly by Kelly Marie Tran, who cuts the difference between adventurous young woman and hardened survivor. On a metatextual level, it’s actually a kind of justice for Tran, who got bullied off of social media by racist and sexist Star Wars fans. After all, there’s hardly a quicker way to cinematic immortality than by voicing a Disney princess, and Tran fully commits herself to the role.
The voice cast in general is excellent, with all the actors being of Asian descent. The exception is Alan Tudyk, Disney’s own Frank Welker, voicing Raya’s animal companion and steed Tuk Tuk. It gives the film a layer of authenticity, as well as providing some high quality voice acting from Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, and others. Awakafina herself gives one of the best performances in a Disney movie in recent memory, making Sisu delightfully whimsical, humorous, and charming.
Raya and the Last Dragon has a lot going for it in the right direction. It’s visuals and voice cast are excellent, and it’s rarely less than entertaining. Its emotional intelligence is off the charts, and it’s easy to get swept into Raya’s inner conflict. If only it’s narrative had been as substantial and complex as its main characters. Even with this in consideration, it more than qualifies itself as a new Disney masterpiece, a surprisingly mature exploration of grief and loss that’s also a total sensory experience.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+
Raya and the Last Dragon can be streamed exclusively through Disney+ with Premiere Access.