Film Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

The latest Disney animated movie is a gorgeous, gripping and entertaining fantasy adventure which continues the studio’s current hot streak. While it lacks some of the traditional Disney aspects (songs and a major villain) it continues their ability to tell fantastic, moving stories with likeable, memorable characters.

The film is set in Kumandra, a once prosperous land that was ravaged by an evil force known as the Druun which turned people and dragons to stone. The Druun were stopped by the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), but while all the humans were restored, the dragons remained stone and the realm split into contentious, rival tribes, each taking their name from part of the dragon.

Centuries later the kingdom of Heart protects the dragon gem, which contains the magic that keeps the Druun at bay. It is protected by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) who has trained his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to take over and dreams of reuniting all the different realms into a united Kumandra. In pursuit of this goal, he invites the other chiefs for talks, and Raya befriends the daughter of the chief of Talon, Namaari (Gemma Chan). Bonding over their interest in dragons, Raya shows Namaari the gem, but it turns out to be a trick and in the ensuing conflict the gem is fractured with each clan grabbing a piece. Unfortunately, the Druun are released and Heart falls.

Fleeing, Benja realises that water stops the evil, and so he tells Raya to keep fighting and try to stop the Druun, before throwing her into the water and being turned to stone.

Six years later, Raya searches the kingdom of Tail for the river’s end where she hopes to find Sisu and use her magic to stop the Druun again. She discovers and restores the dragon, but discovers that the spell used to forge the gem was actually a combination of the magics possessed by five of her siblings. When she touches the part of the gem Raya possesses she gains the abilities of one of her siblings.

The two set off to find the other pieces, but are pursued by Namaari and her men, who want the map that Raya stole back. They also realise that Raya and Sisu, now in human form, are trying to collect all of the gem pieces. What follows is the two heroines tracking down the other pieces while also picking up a ragtag group of allies along the way. Sisu’s optimism and faith in humanity clashes with Raya, who is slighly embittered and distrusting following the events she witnessed as a child.

Will the magic work again? Can they keep ahead of Namaari? Will Raya learn to trust again?

What I loved about this movie most are the characters. Raya is a solid, likeable and flawed heroine, someone who’s cynicism needs to be overcome but we see glimpses of kindness throughout. There’s also a scene where she talks about worrying about her father, when he’s restored, not recognising her, and it’s well done because you get the sense she means more than just because she’s physically aged.

Sisu, a ball of excitable energy is a delight, especially as Awkwaifina’s voice is full of personality and so distinctive. It embodies this misfit dragon who delights in being in the world again and of her newfound human form. The character is sweet and optimistic in a way that never tips over into irritating and I found her an absolute joy.

The one failing is the lack of a proper villain, with Namaari getting a bit of redemption and her mother, who wants the dragon and gem for herself, being sympathetic too. It means the faceless cloudlike Druun are the bad guy, but their lack of personality or character is a shame.

The rest of the ensemble cast are wonderful, with each having their own backstory and reason for wanting to rid the Druun and them having to join forces to fight together despite their different backgrounds and being from rival factions.

The fantasy story is set up well, the world feels real and lived in, and the action is well handled. There are some cracking action sequences and this will probably play with slightly older kids who want some peril and thrills.

It’s an utter gem, and I’ll probably be rewatching it soon as the visuals, story and characters all charmed me. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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