Disney has never shied away from presenting idealistic themes in its films, and Raya and the Last Dragon is no different as it tells a colorful and action-packed story alongside its message of hope and unity. The film highlights the best of Disney Animation Studios with gorgeously detailed visuals, an engaging story, and characters that connect on an emotional level. It speaks directly to the younger generation, a little bit too forcefully perhaps, about how it's up to them to fix what their parents messed up. Sound familiar?
The kingdom of Kumandra used to be a beautiful world where humans and dragons coexisted in peaceful harmony, but darkness invaded in the form of the Druun who turned anyone they touched into stone. In a last ditch effort to save Kumandra, the dragons sacrificed themselves and put all of their energy into a single gem that pushed the Druun away. Centuries have now passed and the kingdom of Kumandra has split into multiple factions all fighting over control of the dragon gem, believing it will grant their own land wealth and prosperity. Their greed leads to the gem being broken, releasing the Druun that were contained for all these years. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) lost her family to the Druun and now wanders the kingdom, determined to find the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) and bring together the shattered gem and reunite Kumandra once again.
Raya and the Last Dragon feels like a video game turned into a film in all the best ways possible. Kumandra has been split into five lands; Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail, with each guarding a piece of the Dragon Gem. The story itself is pretty straightforward as Raya travels to each land gathering the gem pieces as she fights off Druun and other warriors along the way. Raya herself, voiced by the wonderful Kelly Marie Tran, is one of the best characters Disney has created in some time. She’s fierce, loyal, kind, and determined to accomplish her mission and free not only her people but the entire kingdom from the devastation caused by the Druun. Here’s one Disney princess who not only doesn’t need saving, but does the saving herself. There’s also Awkwafina’s Sisu, whose presence brings an delightful charm to the story. Regardless of whether she’s in her dragon or human form, Sisu wonderfully encapsulates the infectious high energy charisma that Awkwafina so often brings to the screen.
What I found most interesting about Raya and the Last Dragon however is how much emphasis it places on what essentially boils down to kids taking on the burdens that their parents created. Raya and almost every other main character involved in the film is young and was raised in a divided world. While her father taught her kindness and shared with her his dream of uniting Kumandra once again, ultimately it falls on her shoulders to make it happen when he gets turned into stone by the Druun. Fighting against Raya every step of the way is Namaari (Gemma Chan), the daughter of the chieftess of Fang. Like Raya, Namaari was raised as a warrior princess although her mother Virana (Sandra Oh) taught her more to rule by fist than by kindness. Namaari’s journey has her chasing after Raya for the Dragon gem pieces as she struggles with making her own decisions or following in her mother’s footsteps. At one point Raya even recruits a literal baby whose family was turned to stone by the Druun to join in her quest. There have been plenty of films where it’s the kids who are saving the world, but Raya and the Last Dragon makes it vital to its story, making it all the more impactful to the young adults watching it.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a stunning and action-packed film that at its core delivers a heartfelt message of trust in one another. Sure, it may be a little too on the nose in its delivery, but it has you hooked every step of the journey. The characters are fantastic, the animations are gorgeous, and its message is solid. Get ready to fall in love with Raya and the Last Dragon.