MOVIE REVIEW: Disney’s RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is fun throwback animation in the spirit of the Disney Afternoon


RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a fun animated film for the family with lots of replay value for children.

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, one of those great feelings I looked forward to every day was hurrying home from school in time to catch the line-up of Disney’s made-for-TV animated series as part of the Disney afternoon. The Disney Afternoon was a series of 30 minutes cartoons presented as a block spotlighting some lesser-known Disney characters in new milieus. You had Scrooge McDuck as a globe-trotting adventurer with his nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Lewie in DuckTales. You had Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book recast as a pilot for hire in a film noir world post-WWI in Talespin. These shows were also paired with Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, and Darkwing Duck as adventure cartoons where these Disney characters would risk it all in big adventures, but that were made for kids in mind. They didn’t have heavy stakes like many Pixar cartoons or loaded with a loss like many classic Disney cartoons. They were fun and were a good gateway to get kids into Disney animated fare. In that regard, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, opening this weekend in theaters and debuting on Disney+ Premium Access, is very much a successor to those types of old-school animated Disney adventures. There’s a central hero with a group of heroic friends who set off on a quest that will bring them together as a team to accomplish what none of them can individually, but can do so through by trusting in each other.

Trust is at the heart of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON. The film follows Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who is training to become the newest protector of the Dragon’s Gem, a magical artifact that is all remains of the ancient race of dragons who once saved the world from the Drune, an evil force that targets the living and reduced them into statues. Raya’s father Benja (Daniel Dae-Kim) rules Heart, the richest state of a formerly unified continent of Kumandra, a fictional representation of Southeast Asia. Each part of the once united Kumandra represents a different part of the dragon anatomy, from Tail through Fang. Rather than having been united by the sacrifice of the dragons, each region looks at Heart with envy and desires to have the Gem for themselves. Through some scheming machinations, Fang almost acquires the Gem during a summit where Benja makes his case to reunify. But in the attempt, the Gem is shattered which brings back the Drune and decimates the population of all the territories.

Picking up 5 years later, we reunite with Raya, now a sullen teen girl, trying to make amends for what she sees as her failure in letting the Gem slip from Heart. She is seeking out a way to bring back Sisu, the last water dragon, to help her magic bring an end to the terror of the Drune which has run wild on the land. She journeys to Tail, and is able to resuscitate Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). Sisu takes a shine to Raya and the two play off each other well, with Sisu’s chipper nature playing a string contrast to Raya’s overwrought and serious attitude. The two set out to recapture the rest of the shards and hopefully once they have them all to set things right. That being said, Raya has a rival, a girl from Fang named Namaari (Crazy Rich Asians’ Gemma Chan), who seems determined to stop Raya from stealing these shards but is curious as to what Raya is up to. Namaari’s homeland of Fang has benefitted tremendously from the split, being surrounded by a lagoon that keeps The Drune away. Namaari wants to rule Fang eventually but is torn between wanting to please her family and trying to bring back everyone swept away by The Drune. Namaari and Raya start off as friends, but their distrust of each other and their unwillingness to see the other’s point of view is at the core of what the film is trying to say. That trust is the only way people who shield themselves in echo chambers can come together and understand where they are coming from and overcome mutual problems. It’s a timely message, and one which the film does embrace in the form of the Drune, which forces people away from each other; a not-altogether distaff version of the pandemic keeping people apart. Everywhere that Raya goes she needs to meet new people and overcome bias and prejudice to get them to come over to her side and help her overcome the prejudices the people in different lands have towards coming together again.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON sports a large Southeast Asian cast and it’s to the film’s benefit that much like Big Hero 6, the movie doesn’t make a big deal about having such a diverse cast in terms of region and nationality. The film treats it as a given as the audience should as well. It is sort of disappointing that the film’s culture is largely a generic version of Southeast Asia with made-up regions and cultures. On that level, it’s like Black Panther where its sort of a caricature of an Afrofuturist utopia. Here, Kumandra is like a bland Asia land with slight nods to Mongolia, India, China, and Vietnam, but nothing that really screams any of those cultures. In that sense, it does seem like something of a missed opportunity to spotlight the beauty of those cultures as opposed to a bit of a bland fairytale melange of sprinkled-in culture. The fantasy nature of Chinese mythology and Asian iconography and religion makes the blend between real life and fantasy a natural one and it’s somewhat sad that the film doesn’t do more with that aside from water dragons.

That being said, the film’s voice cast is a compelling list of Asian and Asian-American actors and the film does a lot with the names they’ve cast. Awkwafina and Tran have a natural chemistry in their banter and it’s refreshing to see Tran being given a lot to do in this film since she was sidelined for almost all of The Last Skywalker. Likewise, Chan as Namaari invokes her with a sense of loss and regret and, at the same time, strength and resilience. Benedict Wong’s role as Tong is great and his character has a lot to mine and Wong makes everything hes given to work with shine. The film’s story isn’t heavy like Up or Soul; it’s lighthearted and aimed at kids. The subject matter should keep parents interested, even if the film’s beats will seem really predictable to most seasoned filmgoers.

Overall, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is the kind of fun family film that should engage and introduce younger kids to the Disney animated aesthetic. It’s not too heavy and has easy-to-follow beats and relatable heroes, not unlike the Disney afternoon heroes of yore. But for parents, it may be a bit predictable. It doesn’t dig as deep into adult issues or feelings of loss as films like Moana and Big Hero 6 do. But, the issues it does tackle, mistrust and the need to communicate and come together to solve problems, it handles very well. A great kids family movie, kids will love Raya and the Last Dragon.