Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest original animated offering from Disney Pixar, now available for general streaming on Disney+. It throws us into a stunning mythological eastern Asian world replete with quests, dragons and a thought-provoking story. The end result is everything you’d expect from a Disney Pixar film, it’s sadly just missing the magic to make it exceptional.
The film follows the fictional land of Kumandrah, which was once home to dragons that enabled humans and their lands to prosper. Evil beings the Druun appeared and turned all who came before them into stone, humans and dragons alike. It was down to the last dragon, Sisu, to vanquish the Druun with a gem full of dragon magic and while she succeeds, she disappears and the humans divide into five warring factions (Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail). The dragon gem remained with Heart, and the film starts 500 years later with a young Raya and her father Benji (Daniel Dae Kim) on a mission to protect the gem from the other factions and try and reunite the land as one. Raya befriends Fang princess Namaari, who soon betrays her to obtain the dragon gem for their own faction. In the resulting chaos, the dragon gem is split into five pieces, a piece taken by each of the factions, and the Druun are released again into the world. Raya and Benji flee with their people, but he succumbs to the Druun to allow Raya to escape.
The action then jumps to 6 years later, with a grown Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) on the hunt for the last dragon, Sisu, along with her faithful armadillo Tuk Tuk. She believes the dragon to be hibernating at the end of a river, and after 6 years of searching, she’s reached the end of the final river. To Raya’s surprise, she summons Sisu (Awkwafina), a water dragon who reveals that she only vanquished the Druun due to the powers bestowed from her siblings in the dragon gem. If Raya wants to rid Kumandrah of the Druun once more, she’ll need to reunite all 5 pieces of the dragon gem, so they both embark on an epic quest through each of the five lands. On the way they’re trailed by Raya’s now enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan) with her own questionable motives, and meet a host of colourful characters including a ‘con baby’, a young boy Captain and Tong, a vicious warrior with a kind heart (Benedict Wong).
There’s no denying that Raya and the Last Dragon is a stunning looking film. You wouldn’t expect any less from Disney Pixar, but they’ve outdone themselves here. Each of the five lands is unique and individual in its own way and is brought alive by the animation – from a desert wasteland to a vibrant market town – they all look beautiful and feel incredibly well realised. These along with some incredibly choreographed fight and action scenes make for a striking watch. The same however can’t be said for the dragons, and whilst the animation is top-notch, the characters themselves look a little too childish to feel truly in keeping with the rest of the film.
Plotwise the film concentrates on a message of trust and togetherness, which is especially relevant in today’s society and an incredibly powerful message. Unfortunately, the storyline itself and the twists and turns are rather predictable, even for Disney. It is however nice to see a strong lead character in Raya, who is a true warrior on a mission and without a love interest in sight, and it’s good to see Disney’s progression and reinvention of their ‘princesses’.
The main issue is that aside from the look of the film, nothing feels particularly noteworthy. The script is good but there are no jokes or memorable lines that stand out, and there seem to be a lot of nods in this to other films like Indiana Jones and the likes of Frozen and Moana, which while appreciated aren’t especially original. Disney films are known for their cute sidekicks and Raya’s pet and friend Tuk Tuk is no different, he is incredibly adorable at any age and also apparently voiced by the ever-brilliant Alan Tudyk despite never speaking a word. However, it’s not the best sign when the cute armadillo is the most memorable thing about the film.
Raya and the Last Dragon is a stunning and enjoyable film. I’ve said many times that there’s no such thing as a bad Pixar film and Raya is no exception. Yet it takes a lot for a Disney Pixar film to rise above just being ‘good’ and become truly exceptional, a title usually reserved for the likes of Up, Wall-E and surprisingly 2020’s Onward, and sadly Raya just doesn’t quite manage it.
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A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I’m not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills – Bake Off here I come!