Raya and the Last Dragon has just about every element that should work for an animated Disney film. The animation is excellent, the humor mostly works, and there are well-done, timely themes. But I still came out of the movie thinking that it was no more than solid, mainly because of how the film set itself up to be a unique entry into the Disney canon, but just ended up being the same type of story we’ve seen a hundred times.
The film follows Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in her search for the the last dragon of Kumandra after the evil Druun have petrified most of the country. The premise and world is where the film sets itself up for success. Even though all the backstory can be difficult to follow at first, it introduces you to a whole world full of history and lore. The dragons are a big part of the Kumandra history, but they’re unique compared to the kinds of dragons that we see in modern popular media like Game of Thrones. With the way the writers and directors set everything up, you’re able to appreciate that there is a realized history to this world that informs everything that happens in the film.
That there is a history does well to feed into the story’s main theme of trust. Due to the creation of a powerful dragon McGuff- um, I mean orb, Kumandra has split into five different tribes. None trusts the other and none even attempt to work together to solve country-wide struggles. The movie explores the importance of cooperation, putting aside negative assumptions, and giving others the benefit of the doubt when everyone shares the same best interest. It’s a lesson that many adults could use these days, but even more so children to create a better future.
And I think this is a movie that will keep kids engaged. The animation is as good as it’s ever been for Disney — it has a style that resembles anime, which is perfect for the predominantly Asian or Asian American cast. It is never visually unengaging. The film’s seamless Asian representation garners it extra merit as well.
Where the film does lose its footing a bit is in the writing. The story feels similar to so many other Disney animated films that I felt like I was able to predict every big story beat before it happened. I mentioned the McGuffin earlier and with each place it took our main cast to, their mission just seemed to easy. Predictability isn’t inherently bad, but it did make the movie feel quite tired to me. And this is just the broad story structure aspect of writing.
I also thought the dialogue was lackluster. For a film that’s created a whole new rich world, I wanted it to feel otherworldly. But for something that felt like The Lord of the Rings in that it could be a distant history of our modern world, the dialogue was disappointingly anachronistic. Having your magical dragon talk about group projects just doesn’t really seem to fit.
This isn’t to say I sat straight faced the entire time because there were a good number of laughs. A lot of jokes landed well, but there were just too many that didn’t. And the jokes that worked did so because of the great voice cast. I’m happy to see Tran getting another opportunity in a big movie because it was abundantly clear that the team behind The Rise of Skywalker didn’t care about her at all. But she deserves to be in the limelight and she shines as Raya. Awkwafina voices Sisu the titular last dragon and is responsible for most of the jokes, both good and bad. A lot of it sounded like improv, and the bad jokes should have been left out by the directors.
Ultimately, Raya and the Last Dragon is solid. It’s dragged down a bit by lackluster writing but is pulled back up by the animation and the voice cast. It feels unique but also just like every other Disney movie I’ve ever seen at the same time, which is an interesting line to walk. I commend it for what it does well and am willing to push to the side what it does poorly because of the timely message and sheer entertainment value.