Raya and the Last Dragon review: a seamless blend of tradition and innovation

A worthy entry in Disney's ever-growing series of animated princess films

Shamara Mohsin
14th March 2021
Image: IMDb
Nearly half a decade after Disney debuted their last princess, comes Raya, a bold return to the infamous figure that has defined generations around the world. The newest blockbuster, tells a compelling story of trust in the form of a post-apocalyptic fantasy about a warrior's journey to restore harmony to her desolate kingdom with the help of some unlikely friends.

The Walt Disney company returns to its roots with this newest royal release and showcases the skill of eighty years of experience from over 100 people working from home to bring Disney + subscribers a new adventure. Raya follows the titular character's lonesome and haunting voyage to find the last remaining dragon of her world, and with its help, end a plague that has wreaked havoc on her home.

Image: YouTube

The feature-length film reminds us how the princess has managed to sustain its place as a pop culture phenomenon in the Mickey Mouse canon through its meticulous adaptation and ground-breaking technology in the twenty-first century with a film about trust and hope. Considering its family-friendly status the movie manages to pack quite a punch for its adult audience as we venture on a quest 500 years in the making, with Raya, the fierce warrior of the heart tribe, as our lead. There we follow along as she searches for the last dragon of her world in a race against time before the shadow monsters, known as Druun, turns the last of her people into stone.

Raya is a reminder of the female figure we all wanted to see on our screens as children

The foremost opening scene, which sets the stage for the film, creates a premise that may sound a tad convoluted for your average animation cynic, especially when it manages to echo the story arc of Moana. However, by the end of its first-quarter the film cements itself as a 180 from its preceding princess films. Despite the story tackling an age-old lesson of forgiveness, trust and redemption it also manages to squeeze in some social commentary about a world divided by anger and distrust (nothing we can relate to then).

Image: YouTube

Disney’s first South-East Asian princess, Raya (voiced by Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran) takes on far bigger stakes than a con-artist baby and a talking Dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) have any right to. Sisu, whilst artfully animated, isn't as charming as prior side-kicks of the franchise. Whereas Raya, who may not share too much in common with her blonde-haired blue-eyed counterpart, nor her red-haired green tailed predecessor, sets herself apart in the best ways.

The warrior princess delivers a surprisingly fresh take on the figure from the very first scene, and her spunky personality is a sure-fire hit with audiences. Whether it’s her natural charisma, sword-wielding skills, or impressive hand-to-hand combat, Raya is a reminder of the female figure we all wanted to see on our screens as children.

I would be shocked if anyone gave any of the cast a second thought outside of Raya and Tuk Tuk

She projects enough character to be a well-rounded, intriguing protagonist with enough development throughout her story to make her journey not only enjoyable but a true lesson learner. Whilst Raya herself may learn this lesson by the end of her story, she’s already the strong, powerful heroine we all needed growing up and marks a new role model for the adults of tomorrow.

However, where Raya shines her co-stars simply glimmer. Whether it’s the product of being secondary roles or a feature-length adventure film's premise, something made it difficult to really care about the extended cast, which alas made them entirely forgettable. I would be shocked if anyone gave any of the cast a second thought outside of Raya and Tuk Tuk - talking dragon included. 

Image: YouTube

It’s plausible you may consider Namaari, a friend turned nemesis of Raya, but that might just be because of Kelly Marie Tran’s interview alluding to some possible romance between the pair. Disney, however, doubles down on having no explicitly romantic subplot for the third time in a princess flick, which makes Raya even more impressive, as she slowly shifts the focus from the love story of a fairy-tale princess to an adventurous heroine that balances the line of feminine and formidable just right. 

The world-building is a masterpiece of CGI through an eclectic fusion of Asian culture, from gorgeous wide shots of the various regions of Kumandra, to the impressive martial arts fight sequences between the heroine and her foe. The film serves as a visual reminder of the talents of animators and showcases the true beauty of South-East Asian culture.

Raya stands as the only princess film without a single song in its run time

Thus, with snappy and artistic transitions, and an array of colourful splendour in its set design, the movie is a visual funfair for kids and adults alike. Such skill may even act as a buffer for its pacing problems which even the dazzling colours, witty dialogue and action-packed sequences can’t make up for. 

Whilst the film may have a thrilling plot, excusing the lagging time in its more serene seems and the somewhat odd pacing in its emotive sequences, it would have felt almost a pinch had it not been for their opportune moments to feature the musical numbers we anticipate for a princess picture.

Aside from the gorgeous ballad ‘Lead the way’ by Jhené Aiko in the credits, Raya stands as the only princess film without a single song in its run time and whilst the soundtrack is a wistful melody that sets off the world, it doesn’t quite do justice to just what Disney is capable of doing with some lyrics. 

Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon sends an endearing message of trust and following your heart in a delivery time of 107 minutes with a protagonist of a princess of the future. While Raya’s story may not revolutionise narrative and execute only somewhat agreeably, the animation, voice acting, dialogue and intentions hit just the right spot with the house of mouse taking the plunge. and carving out a place in their princess line-up for a modern, fresh take on the classic franchise.

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