Disney has been knocking it out the park for the last several decades. While their films often play it safe and they’re still lacking in terms of LGBTQ+ representation, Disney has shown significant improvement over representation and furthering the medium of animation and breaking new ground. Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s latest big animated effort to broaden their horizons and it’s a glorious and beautiful tale.
Raya is the daughter of Chief Benja, the leader of the Heart tribe, living in Kumandra. There are a total of five tribes in Kumandra; Heart, Spine, Fang, Talon and Tail, their name based on their placement on along a dragon-shaped river that runs through Kumandra. A betrayal releases a previously defeated evil back into the world and Raya must find Sisu, the last dragon, in order to restore peace.
Raya and the Last Dragon offers exactly what you think it will; it’s heartfelt, stunningly animated and will please both younger viewers and adults alike. The problem perhaps is that Disney has become a little too consistent at producing good films, but none of them really push the boundaries. Raya is at its best when it’s effortlessly portraying South Asian culture and telling a classic Disney story.
The voice cast of the film is flawless. Daniel Dae Kim is wonderful in his rather brief role as Chief Benja and Awkwafina is charming as the dragon Sisu, bringing her trademark energy and humour to the role. But it’s Kelly Marie Tran who is the heart and soul of the film as Raya. Her voice performance radiates resilience and strength, making Raya into a fascinating, yet always flawed protagonist. Disney’s earlier films have focused on near-perfect protagonist, but recently they have started to add grey areas to their characters. They make mistakes and they fall, their actions have severe consequences but they always learn from their mistakes and develop.
Raya as a character also challenges the usual, traditional Disney princess mould. The story doesn’t feature a romantic interest for her, instead the entire story revolves around women. Raya doesn’t require saving nor is she interested in finding love. Her entire mission is about family and her home which is a refreshing new take on a Disney story. Much like Moana, Raya explores different cultures and presents us with an emotionally complex conflict. Some of the nuance might be lost on the younger viewers, but Raya is an excellent opportunity to teach children about trust, which is the film’s central theme throughout.
Visually, Raya is such a treat. The animation here is flawless as we’ve come to expect from Disney and especially scenes featuring water are breath-taking. Raya still represents Disney’s known and trusted classical animation. It doesn’t exactly push the boundaries in terms of telling a story through the medium of animation as well as something like Soul or Sony’s Into The Spiderverse did, but regardless, Raya is a visual feast, full of colour and life in every frame of the film.
Although Raya never manages to feel as ground-breaking or profound as some of Disney’s other endeavours, it’s still a beautifully told tale with a heart of gold. With winning voice performances from Tran and Awkwafina, Raya is guaranteed to keep both children and adults entertained and it will most certainly also tug at your heartstrings in the best possible way.
Raya And The Last Dragon is available now on DVD, 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™ and will be available to all Disney+ Subscribers on June 4 for no additional cost