Despite some strong elements, the middling live-action Mulan was likely a hard sell for most Disney+ subscribers at $30. For that level of premium pricing, audiences understandably want guaranteed entertainment in return, particularly without the benefits of the big screen experience. Fortunately, the Mouse House’s next expensive experiment in this lane is well worth the price of admission.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon will be available on Disney+ with Premier Access in most Disney+ markets, at the same time as it is released in select theaters on March 5. The film is nothing short of a joyous experience that champions a hopeful optimism in humanity’s ability to trust one another despite ample evidence to the contrary. Given the real world trauma and drama of the last year, the cynics and nihilists among us have been making more and more sense as the pandemic rages ever onward. Yet Raya and the Last Dragon reminds us of the dangers of succumbing to our pre-conceived notions and how easy it is for us to wall ourselves off from the rest of the world. The relevant themes combine with slick animation and surprisingly excellent martial arts-based action to deliver the best animated Disney film since Moana.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and magical dragons once lived together in harmony. But when this prosperous paradise was threatened by an evil force, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, the world has become a dystopian wasteland (remember, though, this is Disney, not Mad Max: Fury Road) with humanity fractured into five divided tribes. With that same evil returning, it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore what has been lost. But to do so, she’ll have to learn to put her faith in others, a task not even a magical dragon makes easy.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON ★★★1/2
An immediate standout of the film is its rich and colorful visual splendor that borrows from Southeast Asian culture. Though the term has taken on perhaps a bit too much importance in today’s franchise-driven ecosystem, Raya and the Last Dragon does a wonderful job of world-building by dropping you into delightfully different pockets of regional society that share a common mythology.
The varying designs, color schemes, and even architecture of each culture, specifically tailored to each tribe down to the hairstyle, is a sight to behold. It’s nothing short of amazing that the majority of the production work was done from home in the pandemic. That includes much of the voice acting, which features a great cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison and Ross Butler. Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada direct, with Paul Briggs and John Ripa co-directing. Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim wrote the screenplay.
En route to a swelling emotional finale that may elicit tears or eyerolls depending on your point of view (definitely the former for me), Raya and the Last Dragon reveals itself to be a briskly paced action adventure fantasy. Taking after its co-lead Awkwafina, the film sports a cheeky stream-of-consciousness sense of humor. This balances well with the film’s action, which is unparalleled among Disney animation. No wonder the Disney-owned Marvel is rolling out martial arts blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings this summer. It’s a style ripe for a greater mainstream platform and Raya‘s exquisite animation and inventive choreography really breathes life into the kinetic motion.
There are moments when Raya and the Last Dragon lay on the emotional messaging too thickly. A dose of our lead character’s skepticism can be healthy from time to time and as the real world continues to be dotted by tragedy, it’s increasingly difficult to muster up the hopeful optimism that powers this tale. But even its most heavy-handed thematic deliveries can be forgiven in service of a greater message. Shared trauma often binds us and we must be willing to take the first step in healing the wounds that segment us from one another. “Being people is hard,” Awkwafina’s mystical dragon Sisou rightly points out.
Disney+ subscribers who may or may not feel burned after shelling out $30 for Mulan need not worry. Raya and the Last Dragon is one purchase you won’t regret.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.