by Hunter Johnson
The Walt Disney Company has many subsidiary companies, but none reach the level of prestige of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Releasing only one film a year on average, Disney strives to make every film distributed under its biggest studio banner live up to the high expectations of fans.
That pattern of quality continues with their newest film, “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Telling the story of a chief’s daughter who must unite a divided world, “Raya” follows many of the same story beats of previous Disney films, but the end result is a stunningly original treatment of this time-tested formula. The cliches are all there, but the heart of the film feels very fresh.
Directed by Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” “Moana”) and Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the first non-musical Disney princess film ever. Watching the film, this creative choice makes sense given the film’s protagonist. Raya doesn’t fit the standard Disney-princess mold: She’s tough, stoic, headstrong, and, most importantly, realistically flawed. Raya may just be one of Disney’s best-written female protagonists yet. She responds to difficult situations in very human ways. She has anger issues, trust issues, and a lot to learn about making the right choices.
This film is all about how trust is not something earned but something given. It lays out a truly amazing story and message that all ages—both young and old—can benefit from watching. In a time when Disney is constantly pumping out films about trending social issues, it’s refreshing to get a film with a more timeless theme that will likely resonate for many more years to come.
This theme of trust is handled beautifully, especially in terms of the characters’ relationships. The relationships that Raya forms with her supporting characters are oft-told and a bit predictable, but they’re presented in character-specific ways that still make them feel unique.
Starring in the role of Raya is Kelly Marie Tran (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”), delivering an emotionally charged performance that only enhances an already amazingly written character. While it’s initially difficult not to hear Rose Tico from the “Star Wars” films, Tran quickly redefines her voice to be that of this tough young warrior whose deeply idealistic center hides underneath her hardened, disillusioned demeanor.
Co-starring with Tran is comedian Awkwafina (“The Farewell,” “Crazy Rich Asians”) as Sisu, the titular last dragon. Sisu supposedly gave her life to save the world 500 years earlier, but thanks to the efforts of Raya, she has returned, though she’s not exactly the impressively powerful creature that Raya thought she would be.
Awkwafina delivers one of the funniest performances of her career. The sharp contrast between her and Raya doesn’t seem like something that should work at all, but it somehow does. Sisu’s innocent goofiness and irreverent charm differ so dramatically from Raya’s stubborn intensity. In the end, these characters bring out the best in each other, and the result is a thoroughly dynamic duo.
Not only is the story well-executed and the casting spot-on, but “Raya and the Last Dragon” is also a visually gorgeous film to watch. It draws heavily from Southeastern Asia cultures, making it a stylistically unique Disney film. Right from the get-go, audiences are introduced to the fictional world of Kumandra through stunning visual effects and a distinct musical score from the great James Newton Howard, who hasn’t scored an animated Disney film since “Treasure Planet” back in 2002.
Almost everything, from the effects to the music to the acting to the story, comes together marvelously to create an engaging, immersive world for audiences to get lost in. The reason I say “almost” is because the one thing that remains uncompelling about the film is the primary antagonist: a fog-like collection of evil spirits called the Druun. The Druun really doesn’t add anything to the film; it’s just a necessary element that moves the story along.
This weakness is largely overshadowed by the wildly compelling dynamics between the characters, but still, it would’ve been nice for Disney to create a more interesting villain than an evil dust cloud. Have studios not yet learned from the mistakes of films like “Green Lantern” and “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”? Evil dust clouds do not make compelling villains!
Despite that one glaring issue, “Raya and the Last Dragon” remains a superb addition to the Disney canon. Its characters shine, and it makes for a wonderful at-home experience during this difficult time as well as a wonderful theatre-going experience for those brave enough to venture out to their local cinema.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is now available to stream on Disney Plus for a $30 Premier Access fee. It will be available to all Disney Plus subscribers on June 4.
Hunter Johnson is a senior Theatre Performance Major and an A&E writer Cedars. He spends his time acting on stage, directing off stage, and critiquing the endless amounts of content that Disney pumps out.