By Renee Xiang,
Warning: This article contains minor spoilers for “Raya and the Last Dragon.”
Disney’s latest original animation “Raya and the Last Dragon” brings a heartwarming and beautifully animated adventure to the screen. It is charming, exhilarating, and carries with it a thematic undertone of mistrust and factionalism which feels conspicuously relevant to our current socio-political landscape.
The film follows the titular character Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as she travels from kingdom to kingdom, collecting magical artifacts alongside Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Both actresses offer an undeniable charisma that — especially when paired together with their fun, ragtag ensemble of side-characters — makes for a constantly entertaining performance buzzing with chemistry.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is equal parts action and fantasy, producing some of the most gripping fight sequences to come out of a Disney movie in years, all in front of a breathtaking backdrop. Each different setting within the film is heavily based in Southeast Asian culture and geography, transforming Raya’s universe into a lush and tangible environment while still retaining that emblematic fantasy atmosphere.
If there’s one place where this movie falls short, though, it’s that it occasionally gets bogged down in its worldbuilding. The first twenty minutes are dedicated solely to exposition, setting up Raya’s rivalry with the princess of an enemy kingdom. Naturally, any fantasy film is bound to have an overarching need for exposition, but in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” it tends to feel like there’s a pause in the storyline whenever the characters have to explain something for the audience’s sake, rather than a sustained forward momentum.
This time may have been better dedicated to developing some of the characters in Raya’s gang, all of whom receive only a brief introduction and very little backstory before they’re swept up in the expedition.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” also falls into the trap of the formulaic Disney animation — of course, with that trademark happy ending — but that’s to be expected with any film with the same level of production as this one. At the end of the day, it still does a tremendous job at keeping viewers entertained while checking off all the boxes of a classic, if not a bit predictable, hero’s journey, with a Disney princess in the lead.
All in all, “Raya and the Last Dragon” delivers a vividly original tale in terms of character, animation and worldbuilding. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada bring the story to life in a way that is both lively, and at times, touching. Matched with a strong script from Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim that’s filled to the brim with meaningful messages, the film manages to pull off all the right tricks. It’s funny when it wants to be, serious when it needs to be, and thoroughly enjoyable by all accounts.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is available now with Premier Access on Disney+, and will be made available to all Disney+ users on June 4.