RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON Review; "A Near-Perfect Mix Of Delightful Visuals And Fantasy Storytelling"

Raya and the Last Dragon arrives in theaters and on Disney+'s "Premier Access" this Friday, but how does Disney Animation's latest movie stack up against the studio's other classics? Here's our verdict...

Disney Animation has been knocking it out of the park for years now, and it’s not unfair to say that the studio has proven itself every bit as capable as Pixar. After a surprising number of movies from the latter which were "just okay," they’d no doubt love to have hits like Frozen, Moana, and Wreck-It Ralph on their hands. Now, we can add Raya and the Last Dragon to that list, because this is another huge win for the studio, and a property with plenty of future storytelling potential. 

Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, the story picks up long after humans and dragons once lived side-by-side. Those mythical creatures sacrificed themselves to save humanity, but people being people, the world failed to embrace the opportunity they’d been given and instead turned on each other. After a crucial mistake as a young woman, Raya steps up to find the legendary last dragon, Sisu, and restore her home after an ancient evil turned its inhabitants to stone. Picking up allies from rival clans along the way, Raya’s journey proves to be as endearing and compelling as those we’ve seen from Disney’s best female characters.

The biggest accomplishment in Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada’s (who direct from a screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim)  movie, however, is making Kumandra feel like a real place, with a rich, vibrant history, in a very short space of time. It becomes easy to get lost in this world, and it’s one we’d not only like to spend more time in, but also learn more about, whether that’s with the same or different characters.

The ensemble is really what makes Raya and the Last Dragon stand out from other similar fantasy movies, with Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya a likeable lead who has buckets of charm, and a badass warrior vibe which never feels clichéd. A well-rounded, complex character, much of that hinges on the emotion Tran delivers through her performance, and it's hard not to watch this and be reminded what a shame her being overlooked in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was. Stealing the show (something that’s becoming a habit after Jumanji: The Next Level) is Awkwafina as Sisu, the water dragon much of the story hinges on. Witty, endearing, and a blast to spend time with, we love everything about this quirky dragon. Rounding out the ensemble are memorable turns from Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and Izaac Wang, but something tells us you’ll really love Little Noi, her Ongis, and Tuk Tuk! 

Visually, the world of Kumandra is a sight to behold, and while Disney doesn’t push animation here quite as much as it has in previous movies (there’s nothing likely to stop and marvel at what you’re seeing like Frozen II’s “Into the Unknown” sequence), the characters look great, and Sisu is stunning in action. Sequences exploring the world’s history - presented in a hand drawn style - unfortunately look a little cheap in comparison, and don’t compliment the overall aesthetic. The action scenes go a long way towards making up for that, however, with some awesome choreography and edge-of-your-seat thrills. James Newton Howard’s score matches that well, but with no musical numbers, some Disney fans may feel this adventure is lacking. As expected, a message can be found at the heart of Raya and the Last Dragon, but it’s not overly original, despite helping make this an undeniably feel-good affair. 

One of the movie’s biggest achievements, however, is that it features a primarily Asian cast. That’s not something we see enough of, and these characters are never stereotypes, cardboard cut-outs, or what some might expect given past experience. Like the movie itself, they’re wonderfully realised, believable creations, and we’re excited to see more like this from Disney Animation whether it’s on the big screen (where you’ll be treated to the charming new short Us Again) or Disney+. 

Raya and the Last Dragon is a near-perfect mix of delightful visuals and fantasy storytelling, and this vibrant, exciting world is brought to life perfectly by Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina’s can’t-miss performances. 


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