Disney princesses often have a similar story, especially when they’re engaged in an adventure. We even see it from other companies trying to do work that apes what the Mouse House has perfected over the years. However, while it seems simple enough on the surface, executing it well takes some skill. Do it poorly and it’ll all just be a pale imitation of what so many grew up on. So, it’s a delight and a relief to report that Raya and the Last Dragon does it quite well. Combining elements from the likes of Moana and Mulan, along with its own distinct flavor, makes this a clear-cut success for Disney. Moreover, it’s one of the more fully satisfying films of 2021, so far.
Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney’s efforts to diversify the types of characters they tell stories about. Don’t think this is some kind of politically correct plan for brownie points, though. No, this is all about story, and a South Asian tale is something Disney has not presented to us yet. Here, it’s done with vibrant colors, heart, humor, and everything that makes audiences fall in love with a new princess. Raya is ready to take her place among them, without question.
The story takes place in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where long ago dragons lived among humans peacefully. All was well for a time, until monsters threatened not just the land, but the dragons and humans as well. Known as the Druun, they were nearly unbeatable creatures who the humans would have been no match for. Luckily, the dragons sacrificed their kind in order to save humanity. 500 years later, the peace between various human factions is tenuous, with Chief Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim), the chief of Kumandra’s Heart Land, trying to hold it all together. Benja is also the father of Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran), a young princess eager to become a warrior. She’s about to get her chance.
When an attack on the land leads to the return of the Druun, it comes down to Raya as a lone warrior. Her only hope is to track down the last dragon. When she finds her, Sisu (voice of Awkwafina) is not what she expected. At the same time, a friendship begins, one that will be necessary to save the day. As they set off on a grand adventure, danger lurks at every turn.
The voice work here is just aces. They all bring out bold sounds to their characters, while never being too over the top to prevent you from just seeing the characters. Kelly Marie Tran is especially great as Raya. As strong-willed a Disney princess as there is, she’s brave, a force to be reckoned with, and complex. The role is well-suited to Tran and she knocks it out of the park. Likewise, Awkwafina makes Sisu more than just comic relief. She’s fast-paced with her dialogue, smart, and witty, all of the things you expect in a sidekick here. Supporting voices like Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk, Benedict Wong, and many more are impeccably executed.
Directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall also do strong work here. Along with directing, they share Story By credits for the script penned by Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen (Paul Briggs, Kiel Murray, John Ripa, and Dean Wellins also get Story credits). The visuals are excellent, while the James Newton Howard score is rock solid as well. They even take the familiar plot beats you expect and never make them seem overly well-trodden. Plus, the visuals are just gorgeous, which would have been a pleasure to see on the big screen. If there’s a complaint, it’s the somewhat inconsistent pacing and slightly bloated running time. Other than that, it’s great work behind the scenes.
Raya and the Last Dragon would have made a bundle if it had opened traditionally last year. Now, it’ll be on Disney+ and will bring in its own huge numbers there. However the delivery method, this is quality animated entertainment from Disney. Look for it to be a Best Animated Feature contender next year. This Friday, however, it’ll just be one of the better movies of the year so far!