Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) – Film Review

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Marking the 59th film by Walt Disney Studios, Raya and the Last Dragon stars an ensemble cast that includes Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong and Gemma Chan.

The film is set in Kumandra, a mythical land that saw dragons and humans live together in peace. However, the dragons sacrificed themselves to defeat a mythical evil race known as the Druun, but this ultimately led to Kumandra being divided into five kingdoms. 500 years later, a lone warrior Raya (Tran) embarks on a quest to locate the last dragon to save and unite Kumandra.

From the outset, Raya and the Last Dragon has the elements of an entertaining film. It has an impressive cast, a distinct heroine and villain, and, more importantly, a wisecracking sidekick (in the form of Awkwafina’s Sisu). However, the film is not as adventurous as it seems. The cast mostly comprises established East Asian actors (while the settings more closely resonate with South-East Asia), the protagonist is a Disney princess (notably, the Princess of Heart) and Sisu comes across as the more impressive cousin of Mulan’s Mushu. With such familiar factors, they highlight Disney’s dependence on tried-and-tested elements to appeal to audiences. In other words, the studio is still afraid to be creatively daring.

Having said that, Disney can be commended for using a narrative that steps away from its customary fairy tales. In Raya and the Last Dragon, the studio aims to deliver a modern film with not only an endearing heroine but one that speaks to diverse audiences and after its successes with Moana and Frozen‘s Elsa and Anna, Raya is Disney’s latest example of a strong female character with no notable love interest in sight. Along with faithful companion Tuk Tuk, she takes it upon herself to correct a mistake from her childhood. This overwhelming sense of guilt lingers behind a curtain of distrust towards others and causes Raya to believe that there is no goodness in humanity anymore. Her cynicism is compounded by Nimari (Gemma Chan), a fellow female warrior whose patriotism towards her own kingdom feeds her antagonism towards Raya. 

The film’s shining light comes in the form of Raya’s companions, who range from the entrepreneurial Boun (Izaac Wang) to lonesome warrior Tong (Benedict Wong). The most notable supporting character is the brash yet optimistic Sisu, whose faith in humanity offers a stark contrast between the world she once knew and the fragmented world she sees now. Although her confidence in others occasionally leads her in trouble, she inspires and encourages Raya to trust others and forgive herself in the process.

Like all Disney films, the animation in Raya and the Last Dragon is eye-poppingly beautiful. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada deliver stunning scenes filled with rich colours amid the lush landscapes of South-East Asia while the cast beautifully delivers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen’s screenplay with sentiment and humour.

Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon shows that Disney is taking steps to highlight representation in its features. While the plot and character development feel similar, its compelling heroine and gorgeous visuals will win audiences over.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ from 5 March (with Premier Fee).

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada; Adele Lim, Qui Nguyen (screenwriters)
Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Awkwafina, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Izaac Wang
Runtime: 114 minutes
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

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