Reel Reviews | Raya and the Last Dragon

by Tim Gordon

Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans, and dragons lived together in harmony. However, when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good in the breathtaking animated story, Raya and the Last Dragon.

In a Black Panther-esque opening, we learn that long ago, in the world of Kumandra, humans, and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves, banding together to create a magic gem, given to Sisu to save humanity.

The story springs forward 500 years, where a brash young warrior-in-training, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), earns the right to join Chief Benja (Danie Dae Kim), the chief of Kumandra’s Heart Land – and Raya’s father to protect the sacred gem. The Chief shares with his daughter that despite them protecting the only protection that can push back the darkness, he plans to unite their land, Heart, with the remaining four tribes (each part of a dragon, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail), to recreate Kumandra and bring peace back to the realm.  It is a lofty goal indeed, but the situation goes awry when the friendship between dragon nerds, Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan) goes south and Raya is betrayed by her former wannabe BFF-turned-rival attempt to steal the gem, breaking it into five pieces as a result. With the dragon power no diminished, the Drunn return turning everything in their path to stone, including Chief Benja, who sacrifices daughter with a piece of the precious dragon magic.

Five years later, a now-adult Raya and her pet pill bug companion Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) are combing the countryside in search of the remaining fragments of dragon magic, seeking to fulfill her father’s dream to recreate Shangrila, better known as Kumandra. In a moment of despair and offering a prayer for help, she magically summons the long-lost dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), who teams up with a hopeful warrior to not just find the remaining pieces of the gem but to help Raya learn the value of friendship, faith, and trust.

Much like last year’s live-action story, Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon is anchored by a predominately Asian-American cast in a magically entertaining story that finds the best storytellers in the business at the top of their game. The creatives at Disney have created the blueprint that has given the company some of the most enduring characters in the history of animated film and it is no surprise that the formula is successful once again. The basic tenets of a three-arc story structure present a situation, introduces tension, and then demonstrate how the film’s protagonist must overcome multiple challenges/rivals to restore peace and ultimately triumph. If executed successfully, this blueprint works with any ethnicity, across any time, and in live-action or animated.

Raya carries deep scars, which prevent her from trusting anyone but Sisu the dragon is an innocent, who looks at the world much in the way an infant would, full of possibility and with a belief that anything is possible. Along the way, they meet a crew, led by a . . . wait for it, a con-baby, a young entrepreneurial riverboat Captain Boun (Izaac Wang), and Tong (Benedict Wong), a lone surviving warrior from a faraway land. Together, they take a stand against Raya’s most formidable opponent, her former friend, Namaari who is on a mission to retrieve the pieces of dragon magic and bring them back to her land.

This winning Disney film has all the fixings that their fans love – plenty of action, humor, and brilliant animation that will keep young children entertained while carrying a deeper spiritual message that will resonate with adults. This entertaining escapism is in sharp contrast to the reality most of the audience experience, but the film’s hopeful message shows us a world where people work together, trust and believe in each other and solve their problems. Raya and Last Dragon is the first statement animated film of the year and another example of why Disney remains the best storytellers in the creative space.

Grade: A-

By Charles Kirkland Jr.

One pragmatic and disillusioned woman sets out on a journey to find the last dragon in order to save the world in the animated feature from Disney, Raya and the Last Dragon.

Once upon a time, the dragons of Kumandra united to defeat a menace known as the Druun, sinister monsters that look like purple clouds that turned living things to stone.  In a last-ditch effort, all the dragons united their magical powers together into one magical orb called the Dragon Gem and Sisu eliminated the threat of the Druun using the gem, at the cost of all the dragons which were turned to stone.  500 years later, Sisu has disappeared and Raya has been made the latest protector of the orb.  Unfortunately, the other tribes of the now fractured world of Kumandra attack Raya’s tribe and the orb is broken, releasing the Druun again upon the land.  To save the world, Raya sets out on a mission to find Sisu, reunite pieces of the orb and banish the Druun forever.

Raya and the Last Dragon is written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim based upon a story created by them and Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Kiel Murray, John Ripa and Dean Wellins. It is directed by Don Hall (Moana, Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting) and stars the voice talents of Kelly Marie Tran as Raya, Awkwafina as Sisu, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk and Sung Kang.

The casting of the movie is pure genius.  Kelly Marie Tran is simply awesome as the newest princess to join the Disney ledger.  She is intelligent, smart and sassy as Raya, all characteristics that she portrayed while in the Star Wars franchise as Rose Tico.    Awkwafina plays the best dragon since Eddie Murphy and actually surpasses his great comedic work by portraying a character that is still comical but also powerful yet seemingly naïve and unsure.  Yet it is Sisu’s naïveté that is the driving force for the social commentary of the film.  Lately, Disney as a company has been taking great strides to be inclusive, overcoming a history of tone-deaf features.  While the world of Kumandra is fictional, it is clearly influenced by Eastern mythologies culture and customs which makes the bulletproof casting so important and smart.

Last year, Disney released a film called Onward.  In that movie, Disney crafted a warm and moving message about the nuclear family in a magical fantasy land.  Disney ups the ante with this film that not only has a warm and moving message in a magical fantasy land but the message is so much more universal and timely.  Raya and the Last Dragon is about overcoming one’s prejudices and suspicions, forgiveness and ultimately uniting together.  The story is so well crafted that the answer is logical and simple to even the youngest viewer watching and at the same time it serves a social commentary roadmap for the ills of the world in which we live. 

Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements, Raya and the Last Dragon is a magical, powerful and important animated feature.   It begs to be seen and experienced by children of all ages. With this feature, Disney has turned in an instant classic and continues to show that is the force in the animated realm by posting another film that pushes the envelope and raises the bar of expectation not just for itself but for all of us, theatrically and socially.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+. 

Grade:  A