The Only Raya and the Last Dragon Review You’ll Need
Whenever Walt Disney Animation Studios creates a new movie, the pressure is on.
The film doesn’t merely compete with unreasonable viewer expectations. It also gets judged against the totality of previous Disney animated classics.
Making a good movie is challenging enough on its own.
That’s the fate that Disney’s latest project faces, yet it more than holds its own.
Here’s my review of Raya and the Last Dragon, the latest Disney animated gem.
About Raya and the Last Dragon
In early 2018, reports surfaced that Disney had entered production on its 59th animated title, temporarily entitled Dragon Empire.
Many people, myself included, believed that this was Disney’s answer to the incredibly successful DreamWorks Animation franchise, How to Train Your Dragon.
At the time, Game of Thrones had yet to suffer through its disappointing eighth and final season.
So, dragon-based storytelling was at an all-time high in popularity.
The thought of a new Disney dragon story tantalized film lovers.
After all, titles like Maleficent, Pete’s Dragon, Mulan, and The Sword in the Stone all used dragons perfectly.
I’ll dance around spoilers throughout this review rather than giving away the film’s secrets.
All I’ll say about the titular Last Dragon is that she doesn’t look like any that we’ve ever seen before…certainly not compared to classic Disney dragons.
I should also mention the impact that delays had on Raya and the Last Dragon.
Disney had scheduled the film’s release for November of 2020. However, the pandemic canceled those plans, creating a unique opportunity here.
For the first time ever, a frontline Disney animated movie debuted at home.
Raya and the Last Dragon has received a modest theatrical release in roughly 2,000 theaters.
Most people (like me) are watching it via Premier Access on Disney+, though. For $29.99, families will own the movie forever on the service.
Everyone else will receive Raya and the Last Dragon for free on Disney+ on June 4th, which means this review is three months early for some of you.
Thus, I’m avoiding spoilers as much as possible.
The Story of Raya and the Last Dragon
This film plays out like so many other Disney animated classics. The protagonist, Raya, enjoys an idyllic home life with her father, Benja.
This man is the leader of a place called Heart Land, making Raya the latest Disney Princess.
Raya lives on Kumandra, a world once populated by dragons. These creatures performed an epic sacrifice for the benefit of others.
The dragons distilled their essence into the Dragon Gem, a powerful artifact that serves an essential purpose.
Humans may use this gem to stave off the Druun, soulless spirits that turn everything they devour into stone.
Throughout the film, we learn that this fate has befallen almost all dragons. Once they ceded their powers to the Dragon Gem, they fell victim to stoning.
Raya believes that a method exists to drive back the Druun and restore everyone turned to stone.
Her optimism stems from Benja, a wise and naturally hopeful leader who faces stiff opposition.
The other lands of Kumandra lack the Dragon Gem’s power, which has caused their natural resources to dwindle. They’re jealous of the Heart Land.
Benja invites the leaders of the Fang, Tail, Spine, and Talon tribes to visit, believing that he can achieve peace by trusting others.
You can guess how well that goes.
Before the situation devolves, Raya meets a kindred spirit, Namaari. The two women bond over their adoration for the proverbial last dragon, Sisu.
Years later, they will meet again as enemies competing for the same prize.
Both of them desire the Dragon Gem as a means to bring peace to Kumandra.
Alas, they have very different ideas about how to bring that dream into reality.
The Characters of Raya and the Last Dragon
I’m tapdancing around so much of the story here, as I know that many of you won’t watch the film until summer.
So, here’s what I want to stress the most. In classic Disney movies, several archetypes exist.
There’s the driven protagonist, the dutiful Disney Princess, who must impose her will on her surroundings to overcome conflict.
Raya more than measures up to other recent Disney heroines in this regard. Due to her relationship with Sisu, I expect most comparisons to start with Mulan.
However, Raya comes with more flaws. She makes mistakes along the way and would fail in her quest if not for the unlikely assistance of others.
Far from fragile, Raya displays more humanity than Disney Princesses of old. She’s a welcome, modern kind of character.
Along the way, she encounters a boy captain and a thieving baby. Their youth exemplifies how much Raya’s decisions have wrecked the world.
The boy, Boun, must fend for himself as head chef and sailor on the Shrimporium. It’ll make sense, I swear.
The baby has befriended a trio of Ongis, monkey-like robbers. The four of them steal anything that’s not tied down. They’re the movie’s comic relief.
I’m not going to hide my joy here.
That baby and those Ongis are my favorite movie characters in recent memory, and I’m already eyeing their Funko POP!s.
To demonstrate Kumandra’s pain, we also meet a scary-looking dude named Tong. He has lost everything due to the Druun.
In a way, the children have adapted to loss better than this might warrior has.
My Review of Raya and the Last Dragon
Then, there’s Sisu, the dragon who discovers that she has outlived her family.
Awkwafina’s performance in this role reinforces the fact that she’s a superstar.
Kids will loooooove Sisu for her jokes, her heart, and her innate decency.
If you’re expecting another Mushu clone, you’ll be shocked by the depth of Sisu.
This dragon also bears at least some responsibility for the world being broken. Rather than dwell on it, she embarks on a plan to make things right.
In this manner, Raya and the Last Dragon quietly preaches an essential moral. We all make mistakes. How we deal with them is what defines us.
That’s my overall perception of Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s a much more somber piece of storytelling than we’ve seen with recent Disney animated films.
In a way, the movie’s a post-apocalyptic thriller, although you’ll forget that because of the babies and dragons and monkey-like critters.
However, the interactions between Raya and her frenemy, Namaari, demonstrate that the constant presence of the Druun has drained all hope.
People no longer trust one another because they’ve lost too much and feel like they cannot take another setback.
The film would have seemed prescient if it had kept its 2020 release date.
Despite all the constant fear and pessimism, the willingness to trust remains an intrinsic part of humanity.
In the end, Raya makes a choice that no other Disney Princess before her ever would have. And its ramifications seem devastating for a time.
This sort of adult storytelling demonstrates confidence in the audience. I’m a bit disappointed we’ll never know whether it would have worked in theaters.
In truth, the film that reminds me the most of Raya and the Last Dragon is somehow…Tangled, one of my favorite Disney animated movies.
For most people, I suspect it’ll be like the 2020 remake of Mulan, though.
That film suffered mightily from its pandemic timing and left less of an imprint than other recent Disney remakes.
As an original story, Raya and the Last Dragon demonstrates bravado, maturity, and wisdom.
We have a rare situation wherein the villain in the piece acts just as driven and frustrated as the main character.
The two women’s similarities should make them friends, yet they work as foes throughout their adult lives.
Ultimately, the difference between the two is that one allies with others, while the other works alone.
You can guess which character is which and which strategy proves more successful and rewarding. There’s a life lesson there.
Raya and the Last Dragon’s opening weekend box office threw under Tom and Jerry’s first weekend, making me worry it’ll be remembered as a disappointment.
That would be a tragic fate, as this is a brilliant film that Disney lovers should put in their heavy rotation. It’s another classic from a film studio that doesn’t miss.
I fully expect Raya and the Last Dragon to finish in my top 10 for 2021, and I happily give it an A+.
As an aside, others agree with me. The film’s Cinemascore is an A, and 95 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics give it a thumbs up.
If you’re on the fence about buying the movie immediately, that information may be what puts you over the top.