Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in a fantasy land called Kumandra, 500 years after the region’s golden age. Back in the day, the people of Kumandra lived side-by-side with dragons in a state of harmony. But a supernatural plague called the Druun ended the prosperous era by ravaging the land and turning living creatures to stone.
The world’s last dragons sacrificed themselves to stop the Druun, but the region was never the same after that. The conflict fractured the people of Kumandra into five provinces who now live as adversaries on the brink of war.
When the Druun return, there are no dragons left to stop them, and society crumbles into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior princess and the former protector of the only remaining dragon magic, goes on a journey to resurrect Sisu (Awkwafina) the last dragon, and stop the Druun. To complete her quest, Raya must outwit her frenemy Namaari (Gemma Chan), another warrior princess seeking the dragon magic to protect her people.
Raya is my favourite Disney princess yet. She’s cool under pressure, considerate of others, and kicks all kinds of ass. And unlike all those classic Disney princesses, Raya’s greatest need isn’t self-confidence or romantic love. Kelly Marie Tran does a phenomenal job embodying both Raya’s joie de vie and her pathos. This is a Disney movie so it’s no major shock to say she’s driven by the loss of a parent.
Raya carries the weight of the kingdom on her shoulders, but she isn’t jaded and hardened either. She appreciates the beauty of her world and all its breath-taking wonders. And even though this character’s biggest flaw is her inability to trust, Raya’s empathetic enough to take several quirky strangers under her wing.
Animated films have looked so good for so long, it’s tough to spot new technical advances. Know that it’s hard work making Raya’s world look and feel so lifelike. Hair and water are notoriously difficult objects to recreate – a computer must render thousands of individual strands of hair or calculate how light reflects off water’s shifting surface. The way Sisu’s fur sways in the wind impressed my inner special effects geek. But I also marvelled at Sisu as she pranced across the sky atop a bridge of shimmering raindrops. This film looks gorgeous.
Raya is a skilled warrior, and the story gives her many chances to show off her skills. Even though this movie takes place in a magical fantasy world, most of the action is grounded in reality. While there are some extraordinary action sequences, the characters don’t whiz around the screen like they’re in a wuxia flick. You can recreate the movie’s fight choreography in real-life without using CG doubles or yanking the actors around on wires.
The virtual camera captures the action from the same perspectives that directors use in live-action martial arts flicks. This tactic adds a gritty intensity to each battle. The thrilling fight sequences are expertly choreographed, and every kick, punch, and swing of the sword has a sense of weight behind it. Raya and the Last Dragon’s combat looks more impressive than many of the poorly edited fight sequences in most live-action films these days.
I can’t stop raving about Raya and the Last Dragon’s dazzling visuals. The film’s directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada put their team of animators to the test. Raya’s epic journey spans several different landscapes, each one more stunning than the last. We visit arid deserts, dense jungles, snow-covered forests, bustling markets, and regal palaces, each packed with sumptuous visuals.
Raya and the Last Dragon presents a fantastic example of worldbuilding done right. Every location feels so considered and lived in that I wanted the movie to slow down to explore their every nook and cranny. You could set an entire film in the vibrant night market where Raya crosses paths with a con-baby. That’s right, this movie features a con-baby!
Raya is already one of my favourite Disney characters, but it’s the wistful metaphor at the heart of the film that won me over. I’m still processing how I feel about Raya and the Last Dragon, but its touching exploration of loss and grieving will earn it a spot on my shelf next to Inside Out, Soul, and My Neighbor Totoro.
This paragraph contains minor spoilers. Raya and Sisu travel across the land searching for crystals containing dragon magic. Each crystal gifts Sisu with the supernatural powers of one of her brothers or sisters. One shard lets Sisu shapeshift into a human, just like her older sibling could.
Maybe I felt extra sentimental as I watched the film, but it’s this little detail that rocked me with the feels. The magical dragon crystals are the movie’s way of reminding us how we’re forever connected to the people we’ve loved and lost.
Sisu may be the last dragon, but she’s not alone in spirit. Her family’s values and eternal love live on inside the heroic young dragon. Like Sisu, our spirits/personalities (or whatever you want to call it) take on traits of our loved ones. And over time, these qualities become intertwined into the fabric of our being.
After losing a loved one, aspects of them – their love, memories, and life-lessons – linger deep inside our hearts. They may be gone, but their absence doesn’t diminish the countless ways they shaped who we are. Sisu’s magical gifts are physical manifestations of her connection to lost loved ones. It also reminds us how memories of those we’ve lost still strengthen and guide us in times of need.
Raya’s dad Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is a blissful optimist. He wants to heal Kumandra, and he’s willing to put his faith in other people to make it happen. Raya has more trust issues than Drake – we know this because she says people aren’t trustworthy about 753 times. Despite Raya’s lack of trust, she internalized Benja’s beliefs (even though she doesn’t realize it). After all, Raya lets a group of kooky strangers accompany her on her journey – including the shady con-baby crew that scammed her at the night market. Is that something a closed-off person with trust issues does? It’s clearly her father’s influence.
Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim’s screenplay isn’t subtle about its core themes. Again and again, the film tells us that Kumandra would be a utopia if everyone quit squabbling and trusted each other. Raya’s problem is that the world came crashing down after she trusted the wrong person, so there is no incentive to put her faith in others. We can all relate to this situation.
Placing our trust in someone makes us vulnerable. Being vulnerable opens us up to being taken advantage of. After someone hurts us by taking advantage, it’s hard to trust anyone else. Once you stop trusting, you wall yourself off from the people worth depending on. It’s a dangerous cycle because a meaningful relationship won’t blossom before you plant seeds of trust.
Once we lose faith in people, it takes a long time to recover. And we start seeing potential lovers and friends as hazards to avoid rather than companions to cherish. But the compassionate tale of Raya and Sisu makes a heartfelt case that some risks are always worth taking.