REVIEW: ‘Raya and The Last Dragon’ Is Built on Hope

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Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest film by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Co-directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, and John Ripa, the film’s screenplay is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. Epic in scale, Raya and the Last Dragon takes viewers to the fantasy world of Kumandra, inspired by South East Asia, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

To bring this fantasy world to life, Raya and the Last Dragon features a stunning voice cast including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Izaac Wang.

Raya is a powerful heroine. She’s fearless. She’s steadfast. And most importantly, she’s propelled by a mission larger than herself. But she’s also hardened to the world, carrying guilt from trusting the wrong person, and ultimately the role she played in breaking the world. There is a complexity in Raya that will hit for viewers. She carries the burden of saving the world, not because a magical outside party gave her the quest, but because of her own guilt. And one of my favorite elements of the film is that we don’t spend half of it with Raya learning about her potential. Instead, we see a young woman who knows who she is, both as a person and a fighter, which is refreshing, to say the least.

But Raya isn’t the only character that captivates the audience. Namaari (Gemma Chan), the Princess of Fang and the main antagonist for the bulk of the film, does as well. She’s a character whose pride is in her strength and her duty to Fang and her mother. As a character, her design stands in sharp contrast to Raya. Short hair with an undercut, bare arms displaying muscle, and a stoicism that reads as calculating to any viewer. Namaari is a strong character and works well as Raya’s foil. But sadly, she falls a little flat. While we see her tie to filial duty, we lose a look at her guilt for her role in breaking the world, which leads to the connection she builds with Raya in the film’s third act feeling hollow. Visually she’s strong, and Chan’s performance is well-done, but like most Disney “antagonists,” Namaari could have been so much more.

While the connection between Namaari and Raya is surface level, they also give the audience fight sequences that highlight the beauty of the film’s animation. Strong and capable in their own right, their action sequences against each other aren’t just entertaining but the strongest parts of the film regarding technical aspects. Raya and the Last Dragon is the most beautiful film I’ve seen from Disney’s Animation Studios, period. The use of water, light, and color in the film make it stand out. My only issue lies in the dragons.

If you’re unfamiliar, Raya and The Last Dragon is rooted in South East Asian culture and mythology. Sisu and her siblings are all dragons modeled after the Nāga. While the animated Nāgas are beautiful to see, they lack the detail and magic you see in the representations of Nāga in folklore. While Sisu is whimsical, she isn’t ornately designed, and the use of one color-scheme per dragon makes them too simple to bring the power you see in renderings from folklore.

But while the animation of the dragons leaves something to be desired compared to traditional representations of Nāga, the connection that Sisu builds with every member of the cast must be called out. Regardless of who Sisu speaks to, Awkwafina matches their emotion and character and builds chemistry. But this is most on display in her dialogue with Raya. Tran and Awkwafina are powerful together, voicing characters with two different outlooks. Sisu is hopeful and trusting. Raya is pragmatic and untrusting. Both voice actresses provide amazing voice work individually, but together, they bring a heart and emotion to the film that brings strength to the film’s central theme: trust.

Now, it’s hard to say if certain media hits or misses its target because of its own merit or because of the scary times we live in. For Raya and The Last Dragon, its beautiful animation stands on its own. Its imaginative, vibrant, and stands out against the rest of the Disney library. But on message alone, Raya and The Last Dragon will hit for some and miss for others. That’s because the power of the film, its heart, lies in pushing past the pain that you’ve endured to trust the person who hurt you. The film is a plea to trust people even when they don’t deserve it, even when they’ve broken the world.

But what does that look like? For some, the message may feel too missive of the pain you carry, shirking any and all consequences for the antagonists in the film, but it’ll serve as a call to keep moving towards hope for others. I don’t know where I fall on this spectrum. On the one hand, there are people you should never trust, and it isn’t on the victim to forgive the abuser. But the way you carry your pain, the way it manifests in anger, that’s what we can move past as Raya does.

Raya and the Last Dragon

That said, the ending of the film and its message also makes me question if Raya’s push for trust and understanding would have been handled in the same way had she been a male character. Like Moana before her, Raya’s conflict is resolved through empathy and passiveness, which women are often pushed to. Her anger is shown to be unhealthy. Her fighting, while showcased in phenomenal fight animations, is abandoned. She wins by doing what the media believes women do best: being empathetic.

While this isn’t inherently bad—and honestly, the world needs more empathy—how it is executed with a female lead leaves me with questions. Mainly, why must female characters bear the weight of forgiveness for others and why can they only solve conflict through passivity? While that’s a question to answer in a piece that isn’t a review, it is a question that hasn’t left my mind since the credits rolled.

And while the humor makes a handful of fart jokes too many, even for child audiences, Raya and the Last Dragon is still well worth the watch. But beyond that, it’s not lost on me that my own bias towards the right now is what I brought to the film. Meaning that those looking for hope, those choosing to live in optimism, will find the message they need. And when I remove myself from the equation, not letting your pain change who you are is a vital lesson for children to learn. Even if teaching children that they don’t have to offer forgiveness is also a vital lesson.  This is why I find Raya and the Last Dragon hard to review. If there was ever a Disney movie where the theme is what you bring into it—this is it.

When all is said and done, there is no denying that Raya and the Last Dragon is a powerful and beautiful film. While I take issue with some elements, I am in love with others. The film offers strong characters, a vibrant world, gorgeous action sequences, and a truly unmatched voice cast. While my own pragmatism may be keeping me from falling in love with some of the film’s push towards trusting those who have hurt you, it’s a story that will resonate for many and definitely work for the target audience.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ via Premiere Access on March 5, 2021.

  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

When all is said and done, there is no denying that Raya and the Last Dragon is a powerful and beautiful film. While I take issue with some elements, I am in love with others. The film offers strong characters, a vibrant world, gorgeous action sequences, and a truly unmatched voice cast. While my own pragmatism may be keeping me from falling in love with some of the film’s push towards trusting those who have hurt you, it’s a story that will resonate for many and definitely work for the target audience.