Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

The newest Disney Princess to grace the silver screen is Raya from Raya and the Last Dragon. Since many theaters are still closed due to the pandemic, this is the second theatrical movie available to stream on Disney+ for an additional fee, the first being the live-action remake of Mulan, which I did not think was worth the extra money for Premier Access. Raya is a worthwhile experience that recreates the magic of watching an animated Disney classic in theaters for the first time, even though I watched it at home. It is full of magic, adventure, and heart with gorgeous visual imagery inspired by Southeast Asia. My biggest concern about this movie was that Raya would be a cookie-cutter independent warrior princess with no personality, but I was pleased to learn that she is just as flawed and human as any other well-rounded protagonist. She share some traits with Elena of Avalor, such as her overconfidence and trust issues but has a unique enough story to stand on her own.

Poster for Raya and the Last Dragon

The trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon is a pretty accurate depiction of the movie's plot. Raya lives in an enchanted kingdom that was once called Kumandra and is under constant threat of being taken down by the Druun, a mystical force resembling the Smoke Monster from Lost that turns people to stone. The only thing that stands between the people of Kumandra and utter devastation is the Dragon Gem, which Raya has trained under her father to protect for her entire life. However, Kumandra no longer exists as a nation in the way it had before the Druun attacked. The people fought so hard over possession of the gem that the kingdom was divided into five provinces, each named after a different part of a dragon's body. Raya is the princess of the province known as Heart because of course she is. When Raya is knee-deep in her training, an act of betrayal shatters the gem into five pieces, creating a visual metaphor of the divide among her people. Determined to save everyone from the returning Druun, Raya must journey to each province to unite the pieces of the gem and in turn reunite the people of Kumandra. Collecting pieces of a magic jewel is a pretty standard plot for fantasy stories, especially cartoons, but Raya managers to incorporate it in a way that feels fresh and innovative due in no small part to the exotic setting and state-of-the-art animation.

Raya and the Last Dragon follows the contemporary Disney Princess formula to a T, featuring a headstrong young woman with no love interest who can defend herself in any physical conflict, no true villain, and a magical act of forgiveness. The last Disney Princess movie to follow this formula was Moana, though Raya sadly any of the toe-tapping songs that made the 2016 musical so appealing. One of the biggest differences between Moana and Raya is the personality of their overpowered sidekicks. Maui and Sisu are sought out by the respective heroines of their films in an attempt to save their kingdoms. Where Maui is arrogant and difficult to work with, Sisu is friendly and humble. She acts as a deconstruction of the "chosen one" trope, similar to The Lego Movie, and teaches Raya that anyone can become a hero under the right circumstances. With an energetic performance by Awkwafina, Sisu is one of the biggest highlights of Raya. She is Disney's first female dragon and the only female comedic sidekick from an animated film since Charlotte La Bouff in The Princess and the Frog. Her cloud-like pastel blue and lavender fur coat serve as a welcome comfort among the fighting and politics of the film. She is featured in some of the most stunning animation sequences, including one that shows her swimming through a breathtaking oceanscape and to show off her natural water-based element.

Raya and a glowing Sisu

Another thing that sets Raya apart from other princesses is her willingness to team up with as many capable companions as she can find. Elena of Avalor had a similar skill of leading a team in the fight against evil, but this is the first time the power team-up is used in a theatrical Disney Princess film (unless you count the comedy Disney Princess team-up from Wreck-It Ralph 2). It is understandable why heroic teams are more common in series than they are in films, as the runtime of a movie is not usually enough to fully develop a large cast of characters. In that respect, Raya suffers a bit as it doesn't provide much screen time for the less important members of her group. There is a con baby who runs around with a bunch of monkey-like creatures to steal for survival, a young boy named Boun who owns a boat, and a tough-looking softie with an eyepatch named Tong. All of these characters lost family members to the Druun, but we never spend enough time with them to know what really makes them tick. In fact, a much larger chunk of the movie is devoted to Raya's rival, Princess Namaari, whose complicated relationship with Raya becomes the central theme of the movie in the same vein as Rapunzel and Cassandra, Elena and Esteban, and She-Ra and Catra.

I think the imagery alone is enough to make Raya and the Last Dragon worth the extra fee to watch it on Disney+. The animators did an extensive amount of research to brilliantly recreate the architecture, fashion, lore, and mytholgoy of Southeast Asia. It contains some of the most beautiful underwater animations I've seen so far in a Disney movie, which makes me hopeful for the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. Raya and Sisu have a great dichotomy together as multi-dimensional characters whose strengths and weaknesses compliment each other well. The themes of forgiveness and understandng are relevant to today's world and follow directly in the footsteps of other princess movies and shows that came out within the past decade. There was nothing particularly original about the story itself, but the way it is told is engaging and fast-paced, never veering from Raya's goal to reunite the people of Kumandra. This movie is a perfect example of what it means to be a Disney Princess in modern times.

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