Disney’s latest animation, Raya and the Last Dragon continues the inclusion of strong female characters being incorporated into the Disney universe. Taking inspiration from an array of Southeast Asian cultures, the film takes place in Kumandra, a nation that is divided into five tribes following a power struggle between them that ended when Sisu, the last dragon, concentrated her power forming a magical gem that brings peace. Raya, the Princess of Heart, is tasked with recruiting all the pieces of the gem after it is broken. Travelling to the other four lands: Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang, Raya and Sisu work together to restore peace and bring Kumandra to its former glory.
Beautifully animated with fantastic characters that we have come to expect from the current Revival Era, Raya and the Last Dragon feels more mature than previous releases as it isn’t afraid to showcase the violence of conflict and the grief of loss. The film is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada with a screenplay written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim and it is clear that a lot of research has gone into developing the backstory and origin to ensure that it is a respectful and accurate depiction while also maintaining an original story that is both captivating and moving. The animation itself is rich in colour and intricately details. From the opening scene, you feel engrossed into the world and the culture from the animation style and the immersion of cultural folklore. Whether travelling through the rough sands of Tail to the wintery scenes in Spine, Raya and the Last Dragon is filled with breathtaking scenery, well developed characters and a story that takes you on a journey through folklore and adventure making it enjoyable for audiences of all ages.
Kelly Marie Tran provides a great leading performance as the voice of Raya. Having proven herself a worthy actress as Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Tran is perfectly cast as Raya as she provides the confidence and strength required of the character. We really feel Raya’s struggle and fight as she is faced with numerous obstacles that threaten to turn everyone in Kumandra to stone. Raya doesn’t sing about her feelings nor does she have a love interest, the film is solely about her and her mission to restore the gem and bring peace to the land. The scenes where Raya and Fang’s Princess Namaari collide are brilliant thanks to the intense performances from Tran and Gemma Chan, who voices the latter.
Awkafina is one of the most exciting actresses working today and has already shown a wide range through various genres and mediums so it makes sense that Disney tapped her to voice the lovable dragon, Sisu. The design of Sisu is absolutely breathtaking using a wonderful pastel colour palette that is rich in blues which make her stand out visually. Awkwafina’s signature humour and charisma helps Sisu’s personality come forward and elevates the character from a mythical Godlike creature to a more humanised interpretation that feels more relatable. This allows for great moments between Sisu and Raya as the former’s optimism helps drive the latter forward.
The score composed by James Newton Howard takes its inspiration from Southeast Asia and helps to elevate the action. There are some really wonderful pieces such as the solemn melancholic music that plays as Raya’s father is turned to stone and the more upbeat, exciting piece that plays as Raya is chasing a baby around Talon to get the gem back. Howard is one of the most prolific composers in the film industry and can always be relied upon to enhance the viewing experience. Raya and the Last Dragon is no exception. Unlike most Disney films (and Disney Princess films especially), there are no songs in this film so making sure that the music was just as captivating was important so as to keep younger audience’s attentive and driving the story forwards.
Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon deserved a longer cinematic release. A film of such richness and spectacle was a treat to see on the big screen and really allowed the details to stand out. After a year long absence, Disney Animation Studio has come back with a huge hit on their hands that is surely going to find itself on the nomination list of many Best Animated Feature categories when awards season arrives. The world of Raya and the Last Dragon is one that would be wonderful to revisit in the future thanks to the stellar performances from the cast and the writers.
What did you think of Raya and the Last Dragon? Let me know in the comments below!
Raya and the Last Dragon is available to watch on Disney+ now!