‘Raya And The Last Dragon’ Soars With Breathtaking Performances, Heartwarming Representation, And An Important Message – Review
Disney has done it again–whatever magic they possess, they’ve continued utilizing it in their process of creating animated movies that truly touch the heart. Raya and the Last Dragon is equal parts visually stunning and wonderfully written. The film is directed by Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall, co-directed by Paul Briggs and John Ripa, and produced by Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho. The writing team of Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen is the duo that brought this stellar story to the screen. The characters are brought to life by the voice talents of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), Sisu (Awkwafina), Namaari (Gemma Chan), Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), Benedict Wong (Tong), Sandra Oh (Virana), and introducing Izaac Wang (Boun) and Thalia Tran (Little Noi). Led by Tran as the titular Raya and Awkwafina as the dragon (or naga) Sisu, the two embark on a journey with a ragtag team in hopes of saving the land of Kumandra.
From this point forward, this review will contain mild spoilers for Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.
We open with Raya (Tran) in a very broken state of Kumandra, and immediately we get a glimpse of the sort of person she is: strong, brave, and dedicated to finding a way to save the land. Though she is young, she has a determination in her that powers through the entire movie. And despite her headstrong personality, we are able to experience a full range of emotions and depth throughout her journey. Sometimes her weaknesses, especially her lack of trust in others, hold her back, but ultimately she recognizes that she must overcome that in order to save herself, her father, and her land.
The rest of the characters are equally as fantastic. Everyone has their own struggles that have shaped them into the people we see them as in the film. Although Sisu (Awkwafina) and Boun (Izaac Wang) are both arguably comic reliefs, we learn so much of their past and the things they have lost. Despite that pain they have felt, they continue to strive forward. Especially Sisu who is a contrast to Raya and her pessimism; Sisu is the embodiment of optimism in this film and she is what helps Raya learn to trust again. On the flip side, the antagonist and Raya’s foil of the film, Namaari (Gemma Chan), is just like our heroine who is fighting for her own cause. The pair of them really are two sides of the same coin. While we may believe Namaari and the entire Fang tribe to be antagonists, it’s clear that they have their sympathetic reasons to their actions: their motivations are selfish but they are not without good intentions. The film plays with these ideas and ultimately crafts a story that aims to understand rather than judge.
I will admit, that pivotal scene where we see Raya’s growth made me emotional. So much of the theme in this movie is so timely and poignant today. While this may not have been intentional from the team when they first began to make this film, it definitely sparks a conversation and a reflection of how people must learn to trust one another again in order to save one another. That’s not to say “Watch this movie and all our problems will be solved,” but instead, it at least brings hope that there is a light at the end of a difficult tunnel. As a movie, the writers put together such a beautiful way of exploring the conflict of trust and distrust, and how, in reality, no one in the movie is evil. The antagonists of Raya do not even harbor ill intentions, but they are people simply looking out for their own community and trying to protect their people. That is a sentiment that anyone can sympathize with, and that is what made me love this movie so much: that there is no clear evil, but instead, it’s that we as people must look past our sometimes selfish ways to come together for the greater good.
The cast is fantastic and they all have such great chemistry in their scenes, despite the fact that none of them were able to record their lines together. Between Raya and Sisu, Raya and her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), Raya and Namaari, and Namaari and her mother Virana (Sandra Oh), we truly get to see a variety of dynamics and relationships, especially ones that highlight the importance of family. Much credit also goes to the editing and production team for creating such cohesive scenes that allow the characters to really seamlessly interact together. And it’s amazing to think that this movie was essentially made remotely with the team working from home due to the pandemic. It is a masterpiece and it goes to truly showcase the talent and hard work that was behind this production.
Not only that, we must talk about the homages and the visuals that are so poignant of so many Southeast Asian cultures. Arguably, I can see the potential frustration of Disney meshing so many cultures into one (as they also did with Moana where they used inspiration from several Pacific Island regions). However, I also recognize the absolute joy of being represented on screen. The feeling of being seen in a major film of cultures that don’t normally get mainstream representation is so heartwarmingly powerful. Imagine being a young Southeast Asian child today and getting to see so many strong and amazing characters on the screen and feel so seen. To see skin tones like that, to see food and garb and decor and even fighting styles that are so reminiscent in so many Southeast Asian cultures–that is something worth celebrating.
However, despite all my praise for this movie (and I have a lot of love for Raya and the Last Dragon as I now regard it as one my favorite Disney animated films of all time), it is important to note that I am harshly critical of the fact that the cast lacks in Southeast Asian talent. While the cast does do a wonderful job of bringing their characters so much personality, it is a hard pill to swallow when so many of the on-screen characters are voiced by East Asians. As much as we can praise this film for its representation–from the cultural details and aesthetic, to the amazing writing team of Lim and Nguyen, and of course to Kelly Marie Tran, Izaac Wang, and Thalia Tran to name a few of the cast–it does not do so in all the applicable areas. By casting so many prominent East Asian actors into several major roles in this film meant to celebrate Southeast Asians continues to perpetuate the notion that Asians are interchangeable. This is a frequent ongoing discussion of whether a voice actor needs to be the same ethnicity or the same race as the character they portray, and it’s a discussion that requires a lot of nuance. As such, even I don’t have the perfect answer, but I definitely believe that Disney has missed an opportunity to highlight even more amazing Southeast Asian talent in this movie and I I truly believe would have made Raya and the Last Dragon excel.
Overall, I absolutely love Raya and the Last Dragon and highly encourage everyone to watch it. It has already made my top ten, if not top five, list of favorite animated Disney movies of all time. It is a Disney film so it is going to be a little cheesy and maybe predictable, but it is absolutely magical and so well-written and well-animated. Not only that, the fight scenes in this movie are action-packed and edge-of-your-seat exciting. This movie had me laughing, crying, cheering all in a span of its 114-minute run. Even now, I get emotional just thinking about this movie, its message, and its impact. My praise and criticisms for this film are not exclusive, and I hope others watching this film can also appreciate the movie for what it is while also being critical for what more it could have done. Still, I already cannot wait to rewatch it over and over again and enjoy the experience each time.