Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada | 1h 47mins | Animation, Adventure, Family
500 years ago the dragons living in the land of Kumandra sacrificed themselves to save humankind from an evil swarm called the Druun. Now the Druun have returned, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) must track down shards of a broken relic to bring back peace to Kumandra.
In their latest effort to capitalise on closed cinemas Disney have released another of their big blockbuster films on Disney+ through their Premier Access, the early access feature for a one off cost. Though these films do become available to all subscribers eventually (Mulan was the first, and Soul being available right away) it seems to be working for Disney alongside the screens that have been opened in select countries. Raya and the Last Dragon feels like an evolution of the Disney Princess mould that Moana (2016) helped to change, including a more diverse cast and exploring cultures and themes outside of the usual western setting.
Co-directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada set this fictional version of our planet in Asia, the presence of the dragons isn’t just in the history as Kumandra’s central body of water is shaped like a dragon, each major region named after the part of the body it closely resembles: Fang, Spine, Talon, Tail and Raya’s homeland of Heart. To rid the world of the Druun, the dragons concentrated their power into one gem that Sizu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, used to expel them from Kumandra. The humans fought for this gem however, leading to the Druun’s return and Raya (whose role was to guard the gem) scouring the land for the different pieces in an attempt to save Kumandra again.
As you might expect from a Disney film, the animation is impeccable. Using the sweeping landscapes of Asia as influence, each region feels unique and pops off the screen with stunning detail and vibrant colours. The character design is superb too, there is no neglection of it to focus on the world building as everyone has their own look and style, from each of the companions they meet along the way to the distinct clothing each region has as well. The only criticism here might be the visual style of the dragons, though the bodies are very in keeping with the cultural inspirations, the faces are somewhat Disney-fied – that is to say they feel out of place with the rest of the character design. There’s an almost My Little Pony feel that once noticed is hard to shake.
That being said, Awkwafina as Sizu is one of the more underrated aspects of the film. Kellie Marie Tran has a wonderful performance as our lead, easily carrying the story on her shoulders, and Gemma Chan as Namaari – Raya’s childhood rival, and the reason Kumandra is in its current state of affairs – plays excellently off her, Awkwafina uses her husky voiced Sizu to break the tension and be much of the comedy relief throughout. That isn’t to say that other characters aren’t funny, the young kids that join them are both entertaining (though Izaac Wang as Boun is surprisingly sauve and funny), Awkwafina plays the role with naivety and kindness effortlessly with many laugh out loud moments throughout.
Potentially the best aspect of the direction from Hall and Estrada is the action sequences, as they feel smooth and superbly laid out. It’s easy to tell where every character is and they use the hand-to-hand and swordplay to its fullest. The battles between Namaari and Raya are especially excellent, the last encounter is framed beautifully in a wonderfully animated setting.
Unfortunately it isn’t flawless though – Sizu is very entertaining but parts of her dialogue are clunky, exposition dumps that feel fairly unnecessary. It seems like a missed opportunity for our characters to learn the information organically as they explore each land rather than one person always knowing everything about a specific subject. As well as this, Sizu has many anachronisms, which dilutes the unique world and reminds us that this is a Disney production
There is something to be said about the pacing as well, each individual sequence is done very well, usually very fast and zippy, but giving enough time for each moment to sink in. It’s the overall structure that suffers due to the aforementioned exposition. Every region feels like a new chapter, but unnecessarily so. As the pacing of each scene is so quick it feels like it stagnates when we reach a new location as one of the characters has to tell us everything about it, though as the film goes on this gets better and it does slow down an otherwise well paced story. Many of these faults seem down to the same reason the design of the dragon’s faces feel out of place – it’s all a bit too Disney. If another production company like Laika (or even Pixar) had created Raya, it might be an aspect we wouldn’t be talking about.
All this being said, Raya is still a fantastic and original film, one of the better to come from Disney in a little while. The message of putting aside your differences and trust each other, coming together as a community is lovely and well thought out, albeit quite predictable – but when the credits roll you aren’t dwelling on those negatives, as the good aspects outweigh any criticisms that some people have.