Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
After a couple years of leadership changes and officially making sequels, Walt Disney Animation Studios presents its next original animated feature by taking a journey into Southeastern Asian culture. It was originally called "Dragon Empire" and set to be the directorial debut of veteran animator Paul Briggs. However, once the script and title were changed, Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada became the new directors (with Briggs as a co-director). At the same time, the movie caused a bit of controversy where the East Asian actors didn't represent the Southeastern Asian culture. Despite that, Disney took the risk of releasing the film simultaneously in theaters (after initially planned for December 2020 release) and on Disney+ streaming service...where [to date this review] subscribers would have to pay $30 in order to view it before it officially becomes free in June. In the end, how does it fare?
A warrior princess (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) must find the surviving dragon species (voiced by Awkwafina) to save a divided nation from evil spirits.
A Trustworthy and Imaginative World
As soon as the movie starts, it definitely sets up the world building and imagination that anyone would expect out of a Disney story.
The setting takes place in the fantasy nation called Kumandra where dragons were its guardians against evil spirits known as the Druun. The dragons sacrificed themselves by creating an magical orb that sealed away the spirits. The people of Kumandra then desire to obtain the orb for power and divided into five tribes. Years later, the orb shatters as each tribe took the broken pieces and the Druun return to wreak havoc.
In hindsight, some would find this concept sounding similar to the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which involved separated kingdoms and occasional animal hybrids. The movie also provides some familiar Disney tropes like the main protagonist being a princess, comedic side characters, and a death of a parent. However, it is executed in a unique and refreshing matter that the familiarity gets sidetracked and focuses more on the world, the mythos, and its inhabitants.
The major theme that the story brings is the importance of trust. It is true and debatable among moviegoers that dealing and overcoming with prejudice in Disney properties are a challenge. The prime example of being done right is the 2016 film Zootopia. With the message of trust thrown in, it isn't as hammered in as it sounds. It naturally flows within the characters and their motivations. Without spoiling, the third act climax heavily conveys the moral beautifully. It's almost a tearjerker.
If there was one setback, the movie would pause and lighten the mood with comedy. It is common in any Disney family film and there's generally nothing wrong with that. For a movie like this, some audiences would believe adding humor wouldn't match the action-adventurous or serious tone. Then again, there have been previous animated features have done this before so there's no point of comparing. The humor is hit-and-miss, yet the majority of the humor comes from the side characters and the deuteragonist Sisu, which will be talked about later.
On the surface, this tale would be nothing special. But, once you trust it, you will feel the Disney magic and excitement to expect.
Beautiful Variety of Animation
The biggest aspect of the movie is definitely the visuals and animation. It is highly evident that the animators have spent tons of research and influence from Southeastern Asian culture into crafting this extraordinary world. It is appropriate to start with the Kumandra nation itself. It is visually clever that the nation has a connecting river that is shaped like a dragon. Besides being named after each part of the "dragon," each region is diverse and distinctive from another. Fang is the northwestern region known for its fierce warriors and love for cats, Spine is the northern and snowy mountainous region, Tail is the far eastern and scared desert region, Talon is the shady and populated market region, and Heart is the central region known for its rich rainforests and tranquil kingdom.
The people look aesthetically human and smoothly move realistically. Their character animations' would crank up whether they would engage in an action sequence. The only exception is Noi where she and her band of Ongis move more cartoony with emphasis of squash-and-stretch. There is also some creativity with some of the animals' designs, particularly with Tuk-Tuk, Raya's pet whose design is a combination of a pillbug, armadillo and pug, and the Ongis, which are a mix between monkeys and catfish.
For the supernatural characters, the dragons' designs remain faithful to the designs found in Southeastern Asian mythologies while the Druun are depicted as an ambiguous and amorphous dark clouds. With Sisu, not only she moves more energetically to coincide with her personality, but the animators also added a variety of effects animation depending on the power of each broken gems launch. One gem can make her hair glow luminously, one can create fogs, one can shapeshift, and one controls the rain where dragons can literally walk on rain. Each effect animation help makes this movie beautiful to look it.
As a bonus, there are moments the art medium would change into 2-D animated fantasies, whether the 3-D models have a cel-shaded look similar to the hand-drawn-like sequences done in the Kung Fu Panda films or the narration of the Kumandra nation being told through puppetry.
With so much hard work provided, the animation itself is visual eye candy under the Disney name.
A Distinguishable Cast of Characters
If anyone wants to know more about the world, then let me introduce you to its characters. Each character has a motivation and connection throughout the movie. Starting with our titular character, Raya is the strong-willed and determined princess of the Heart kingdom with a sense of humor and fascination with dragons. Throughout her journey, Raya goes through an arc where she is hesitant on trusting others and must learn to see who is truly good. Accompanying her is Tuk-Tuk who acts as her mode of transportation, besides being her loyal pet. Our deuteragonist Sisu is the last surviving water dragon and a vital character to the story. At first, she seems like the typical comic relief character where she acts witty and speaks in lingo. In fact, some Disney fans would compare her to Mushu, another dragon comedic sidekick from Mulan. Personally speaking, Sisu stands out more. For starters, she is very helpful with her swimming abilities and able to provide some of the gems' magic. But, her biggest strength is her naivety and good-hearted nature. Once she get past her difficulty adapting to current human lifestyle, her ideas would help benefit the message of trust and peace among others. In other words, she is the most trustworthy character of the bunch.
During their adventure, they come across colorful characters and form a group: the skillful chef and boat operating child Boun, the con artist baby Noi and her gang of Ongis and the intimidating yet lonely giant Tong. All these characters share is a motivation to restore peace and reunite with their loved ones. They would act like a dysfunctional family sometimes.
While the Druun may be simply viewed as a growing dark force that turns people into stones, our primary villain is Namaari. She is the princess of the Fang kingdom who seeks the dragon gem to make a "better world" for her people. As power-hungry as she is, without going to detail, she is a refreshing and complex character for a couple reasons. Historically speaking, she may be the first princess as an antagonist. Second, the relationship between her and Raya seems genuine for their similar interests and wishes.
Even though the actors themselves are not authentically from Southeastern Asia, their performances still make their characters more dependable. Kelly Marie Tran knew how to balance the serious and fun side of Raya while Awkwafina surprisingly gave a subtle performance where a comic relief character can be both funny and motivating. Other recognizable actors like Benedict Wong and Sandra Oh did a solid job.
Lastly, after a long absence, James Newton Howard returns to compose the score. Shockingly, the previous movie he worked on was Disney's ambitious yet disastrous animated bomb Treasure Planet. Not only he did a wonderful job, but he also authenticate the atmosphere which will positively draw audiences in.
The characters will captivate audiences and leave out with a favorite and humming the soundtrack along the way.
Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney's next instant classic in the animated feature library. This movie dwells deep into Southeastern Asian customs with a thoughtful story, powerful moral, productive animation, unforgettable characters, and a veridical score. This is a must-watch for everyone of all ages to watch for starting 2021 and worth a price of admission in theaters. For those who plan to see it in theaters, there is a short film that plays before the movie called "Us Again". It is about an old married couple that spend the night reliving their young and dancing years. Visually told well through music, rhythm and no dialogue. It is a great appetizer before the main course. For those that have Disney+, it is a pricey yet noble option to watch at home. If not, wait till June or it is released on home media. Even in the toughest times, Disney still shows that there is still magic and trust within.