Centuries after the last dragons gave their lives to banish the world of a dark, soul-absorbing force known as the Druun, the guardianship of an orb containing the last of the dragons power has fallen to Chief Benja and his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). After a cataclysmic mistake, the orb is destroyed and the pieces scattered throughout the fantastical land of Kumandra. It’s up to Raya and her ragtag group of companions to find the pieces, reassemble them and banish the dark forces of the Druun once again. The gang will enjoy the help of the last remaining dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina).
Raya benefits from an absorbing spirit of adventure that’s aided by some wonderfully exciting action sequences and a gorgeously designed world. This may well be the most ambitiously gorgeous fantasy landscape Disney have rendered for one of their adventures. Kumandra recalls the most fantastically vivid images of Disney’s Star Wars or Marvel films. But although the film draws from the aesthetics of various south-east Asian cultures, it can’t help but feel like a very western story. This falls short of Disney’s better efforts to reach out to the cultures it’s stories occupy.
This immaculate style extends to the character design. A great deal of personality is articulated through their appearance, which rank amongst Disney’s most memorable. There’s a beautiful consonance between this design and the voice cast. Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina work wonderfully together and give committed, comedic and moving performances as Raya and Sisu. Supporting performances from Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, and Daniel Dae Kim make this world feel populated and authentic, even if it can’t quite be traced to any one particular place.
It’s fortunate that the characters work so well together, because the humour does fall flat and even grates a little. It’s a very 90s style of family humour that sees characters over-animated and speaking in contemporary aphorisms that are sure to age almost instantly. Are people still saying “on the regular”? But the awkward humour and aggressive approach to physical comedy also feel reminiscent of the Disney Renaissance, to which this film is clearly indebted.
Far more effective is the heart and message of the film. Though frequently concerned with loss and grief, the film is primarily about trust. It’s about putting your faith in people who have previously hurt you and overcoming prejudice and assumptions through earnest demonstrations of vulnerability. It’s sincere and urgent plea for understanding between divided people that will always feel relevant.
There were high hopes for Raya and the Last Dragon, and it doesn’t deliver on all of that promise. It’s not as funny, natural or authentic as you’d hope. But it’s fun, exciting and gorgeous. It has enough merits to stand as a solid entry into Disney’s canon, even if not amongst it’s truly transformative experiences.