Raya and the Last Dragon is a heart-swelling, put a lump in your throat kind of movie. It’s the best Disney animated films to come out in years.
I’ll just say it: Raya and the Last Dragon is the best Disney animated film to come out in years. It is just gorgeous to look at, filling the sky with cotton candy dragons over beautiful digital animation over Southeast Asian landscapes. It even has a keen eye for juxtaposition. Though, that may be beside the point. It is a beautifully heart-swelling put a lump in your throat kind of family film that doesn’t come around too often.
Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of Kumandra, a fantastical land where once humans and dragons lived together peacefully. Though, when confronted by the dreaded and sinister monsters the Druun, the Dragons made the ultimate sacrifice: they fell on the sword to save humanity. The dragon gem is left behind with the magic to keep everyone protected. The stone is kept in the Heartland of Kumandra. It is guarded by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and he is training his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), to be the Guardian of the Dragon Gem.
But, when Namaari (Gemma Chan), a warrior princess of the Fang Land tries to steal the stone, it breaks into five pieces. They are then stolen, and taken across multiple parts of the vast land. The result is now those pesky Druuns have come back, no longer restricted by the power of that stone. Now Raya must find a way to locate the stone and put them back together. To save her family, friends, and the land she calls home. To help, she meets a quirky dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), to help her on her quest.
Raya and the Last Dragon was directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting). They are working with a script from Qui Nguyen (The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians). And when I say working with, they all do in perfect harmony. It incorporates multiple Southeastern Asian cultures and is combined with just gorgeous-looking animation. The script is heartfelt. It has fresh and interesting characters. Moreover, with a script that not only has a lead female heroine but a villain (with a good heart) as well.
The cast is exceptional here. Awkwafina balances her heartfelt voice acting with well-timed comic, uh, gems if you will. Tran and Chan do have good buddy chemistry; they work well off each other. The rest of the cast includes Kim, Izaac Wang (Good Boys), Benedict Wong (Avengers: Endgame), Sandra Oh (Killing Eve), Lucille Soong (Fresh off the Boat), Sung Kang (Fast Five), and Alan Tudyk (Firefly) as Tuke Tuk. He’s an adorable hybrid of pill bug and armadillo that would have made a killing around the holidays if the film opened up last November like it was supposed to.
The film has taken some hits as of late. The majority of the cast is Southeast Asian, but critics argue that the film does not necessarily represent that culture. The script takes on several Southeastern Asian cultural influences instead of drawing inspiration on just one. While they have a point, the film’s set up and is about several cultures that want control of the dragon gem. It’s about putting your trust in someone and they putting theirs in you.
The theme is about peacefully coexisting and coming together and Raya and the Last Dragon accomplishes that wonderfully. I had to watch the third act climax twice. It will go down as one of the great scenes in animation film history. It’s poignant, yet not overwhelming. It’s just a wonderful film experience.
I’d like to take a moment about co-director Carlos Lopez Estrada. He directed what I considered one of the best films of the decade with Blindspotting. It was the best film of 2018 and his follow-up effort (along with the 2020 film Summertime) being one of the best-animated films to come out in recent memory is quite an accomplishment. He’s a talented filmmaker and one to watch for in the future. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.