A Visually Stunning Asian Delight
Raya and the Last Dragon is a wonderful movie. It’s a gorgeously rendered, distinctly Asian-flavoured picture that combines adventure, comedy and thrills to excellent effect. The story zips by at a breathless pace, the action comes thick and fast, while the emotional climax rounds everything out with a neat little origami bow.
In its simplest form, Raya and the Last Dragon’s story combines elements of Moana and Mulan with a more conventional video game fetch quest. While that may sound bizarre, the execution is actually pretty good and the story is intentionally segmented into different parts of this mission to keep the pacing as tight as possible.
Our adventure takes place in a realm known as Kumandra, where dragon and human live harmoniously together. Following an attack by the evil Druun, the dragon sacrifice themselves to save the world, leaving humanity to point fingers at each other.
Skip forward hundreds of years and the world has never been more divided. In fact, these divisions manifest themselves into five distinct clans (each notably named after parts of a dragon). At the center of all this is Raya, who follows her Father’s lead in tribe Heart as he tries to bring about peace by opening his arms – and land – to the rival clans.
Unfortunately this peace is shattered when a dramatic event leads to the Druun returning and threatening to destroy life in Kumandra. With no dragons this time, it’s up to Raya to save the day, collecting up fragments of a special relic to bring about the end of the Druun – and the return of the dragons.
I won’t spoil anything here but the story rockets forward at a pretty lively speed, stopping every now and then to catch its breath and fill us in on exposition. In fact, a good chunk of this movie is chock full of exposition that grinds the story to a halt. At times it almost overpowers the enjoyment of the picture. Thankfully, the film makes up for these shortfalls with an eclectic, memorable supporting cast.
Raya’s story is certainly unique too and with no romance, no male protagonists and very little in the way of Disney princess tropes, this film stands out next to other movies in Disney’s illustrious catalogue. The movie still plays with strong central themes – a hallmark of Disney animation – settling this time on ideas around friendship and trust. These two traits become integral to the plot the longer the story goes on for.
Counterbalancing these heavy themes is the humour, which is absolutely on-point almost the entire way through. You’ve got the cute supporting characters, the lovable animal sidekick and a merry band of misfits along for the adventure, jabbing audiences constantly with a barrage of crazy antics and laughs.
The only time you won’t be laughing is during a particularly cynical gag about credit cards midway through the movie. This is the one big blemish on an otherwise engaging film, as our characters lavish praise on the idea of credit. “Pay it on credit later, what a great idea!” One character excitedly chirps up, as the scene cuts to them carrying a large stack of items. Given the themes around trust, lavishing praise on the idea of credit cards without even mentioning the interest feels pretty distrustful.
Thankfully this blemish is easy to look past thanks to the one stand-out element of Raya and the Last Dragon – the visuals. Almost every scene is a picturesque delight and Disney’s animators have done an incredible job with this film. You’ll be in awe at a flower floating lazily on the water or how raindrops dribble down Raya’s hair. The only contrast to this comes from the dragon design, which perhaps feels a little too bright and vibrant given the backdrops. Think The Good Dinosaur and you’ll have a good idea of this visual clash. It’s not a deal breaker but it is something worth bearing in mind.
For some, Raya and the Last Dragon will feel like a glorified video game fetch quest, with the basic plot structure seeing Raya travel far and wide to collect up a bunch of rare relic pieces.
This would be a disservice to the film though, which takes those ideas, combines them in with some of Disney’s best modern movie tropes and adds a distinct Asian spin on proceedings to make for a wholly original and satisfying picture. This is undoubtedly one of the best animations of the year and any fans of Disney animation should be in their element with this one.
Raya and the Last Dragon drops on Disney+ 5th March 2021!