Review: 'Raya And The Last Dragon" Has Its Heart In The Right Place

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 2, 2021

'Raya And The Last Dragon'
'Raya And The Last Dragon'  

Disney Animation's latest empowerment spectacle "Raya and the Last Dragon" beautifully ups their diversity, while still remaining a standard "let's all work together" empowerment flick.

While Disney is first and foremost a kid-friendly studio, they have been known to fill their animated movies with enough wit and humor aimed at adults that they appeal to all. The problem they are starting to run into is that their messages are getting repetitive, and their stories predictable.

Granted, for kids who have not seen a plethora of these types of inspirational stories, it will be effective. For older teens and adults who have enjoyed Disney (and Pixar) for the last few decades, it won't feel quite as fresh.

What is fresh is the setting. While the film calls the country where our story takes place Kumandra, it is full of nods to the South Asian culture. This is its strength, and where the film draws much of its beauty from.

The film opens with a bit of history as told by the young adult Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). She tells how her country Kumandra was a peaceful place full of different cultures and traditions. Oh, and also colorful dragons. But terrifying monsters known as the Druun attacked Kumandra, and the dragons sacrificed themselves to save it. The only remnant is a glowing stone called the Dragon Gem that holds the power and souls of the dragons that gave their lives to fend off the Druun.

Five hundred years later, Kumandra is a divided world, with the country split into five different provinces that do not get along. But when the leaders of four of these provinces try to steal the Dragon Gem from its protected resting place in the province of Heart, the destruction of the stone and the theft of the remaining pieces calls forth the Druun again, turning many of the residents of all five provinces to stone.

But there is hope in the form of Susi — the last dragon that initially used the gemstone to stop the Druun centuries before. Raya — the tough princess of Heart — takes it upon herself to find Susi, stop the Druun, and bring peace to her land once again.

Her quest involves not only finding Susi, but bringing the pieces of the stone together. Her journey brings her to each province, where she attempts to gather the stone pieces and find the last dragon. Of course, that dragon — a colorful, furry creature voiced by Awkwafina — becomes her stalwart, if not nutty, companion. (She's basically Raya's "Genie.") The two will meet others from each province that will help them on their mission, and ultimately Raya will have to face a rival princess named Namaari (Gemma Chan) who caused the chaos to begin in the first place.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" is certainly a beautifully animated film. From the colors and the settings, to the imaginative animals and magic that abound in Kumandra, there is a lot to savor. The dragons are glorious to see float through the air, and their ability to walk on raindrops is inspired.

The exemplary voice cast also includes such notable actors as Daniel Dae Kim ("Lost"), Sandra Oh ("Killing Eve"), Benedict Wong ("Doctor Strange"), Lucille Soong ("Fresh Off the Boat"), and Alan Tudyk ("Rogue One").

The screenplay, however, feels a bit overstuffed. It's an easy enough movie to figure out despite all of the world-building you need to take in, but it's the never-ending reminders of the themes of the story that get tiresome. Written by Adele Lim ("Crazy Rich Asians") and Qui Nguyen ("The Society"), it's also based on a story conceived by eight different writers. And it shows. There are so many cooks in the kitchen that the story becomes overwhelmed by ideas. Is this about Raya's loss of trust when a new friend became her worst enemy? Is this about the five provinces learning to work together? Is it about the sacrifice of the dragons for their human companions? Or is it simply about a girl trying to find her place in a changing world?

It's about all of those things, told in swift and simplistic ways that are heartfelt and earnest but increasingly repetitive.

Again, the younger set will most likely adore this film and that's a good thing. There are no songs in this latest Disney offering, although that would have been a nice addition, especially if they kept them culturally relevant. But that's okay. It has its heart in the right place, the cast and animation is terrific... I just wish there was something new in the themes and story arcs that we haven't seen a hundred times before... or at least that they hadn't felt the need to constantly remind you of what those themes are.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" is available today digitally!

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.