By Jack MacDonald, MA, Film & Television
Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest in a pantheon of Disney films that continue to pioneer innovative works of animation. Over the past decade or so, the development of animation has led to a new dimension for stories with visually impressive story-building and narrative depths.
The story here takes place in the land of Kumandra. The world, made up of lands reminiscent of South-East Asia, is ravaged by a malicious force called the Drunn. Kumandra’s few reigning dragons contain the force by the production of a gem - in doing so, however, the dragons are turned to stone. The tribes of the world become divided over the gem and in the present day; our lead character Raya’s father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), leader of the Heart tribe, keeps the gem on guard.
However, the various tribes bicker and squabble over the ownership of the gem, and soon the gem is split into pieces during a struggle; eventually the Drunn emerge once more and turn Raya’s father and other citizens into stone. It is up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to recover the remaining pieces of the gem to restore the land once more; this is only with the aid of the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), a few quirky friends - all while doing battle with a treacherous enemy, Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), along the way.
The film boasts a clear, thematic story arc, run through with concepts of trust and acceptance. Raya’s journey and her goals are channelled by the bonds with those whom she ultimately puts faith in and, even when her trust in certain characters may be displaced, it builds a strong message that trust, empathy and compassion to do the right thing can be an embracing trait. Backed heavily with the visual splendour that is to be expected from the animators of Disney studios, the film is an aesthetic joy to watch. Awkawfina, voicing Sisu, creates a humorous and energetic character. But more importantly, they feel like a convincing part of the world they occupy, and it is a fully realised environment that the viewer immerses themself in.
Its streaming release on Disney+ does the film a huge disservice as it really needs to be seen via a theatrical experience in order to take advantage of its expansive scope and beautifully inventive bolster of world set pieces. The plot moves along at a breakneck pace, though fortunately not at the expense of sacrificing realistic, emotional drama. While the film is successful in engaging you in picturesque scenes of detail, at its core, it has a central relationship between Raya and Sisu which is grounded in humorous insight.
This works well and it doesn’t feel like a forced screenwriting notion of what would drive these characters in that it does feel true to what the characters want, what they need, and what they feel is right. Not only that, the storytelling is joyously embellished by the film’s portrayal of South-East Asian culture marking an important step in societal representation in animation and cinema. One criticism would be that some supporting characters are less effectively developed within their space of the film and are largely there to further aid Raya’s goals.
With all that said, the film continues the long run of Disney Studios sequentially pushing the visual boundaries of their craft on screen. Further positively promoting character development over tropes, as well as continuing to build on positive representation. It is a film that is welcomed and has a positive message to say; for lack of a better phrase: it’s a gem!
Featured: IMDb, Disney Studios
Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon yet?