I am a diehard Disney nerd (my euphemism for what the kids now despairingly call a “Disney Adult”) and have been yearning for new Disney films during these tough pandemic times. I love the thoughtful messages contained in each story, the breathtaking animation, and the nostalgia. MULAN and SOUL held me over in 2020, and thankfully, Disney came to save us just in time with its beautiful, heartwarming film RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON.
RAYA is an action-packed, female-led adventure film that focuses on themes of tradition, trust, and honor. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) hails from Kumandra, a once-harmonious territory that was split into five competing kingdoms long ago following the extinction of dragons. The dragons perished defending the territory from an evil force, the Druun, that turned most living things to stone. When the dragons gave their lives to defeat the darkness, they left a gem with a magical life force inside that prevents the Druun from rising again. Raya’s prosperous kingdom, Heart, is charged with protecting the gem and she and her father (Daniel Dae Kim) practice for hours on end to hone their combat skills in case anyone tries to take the precious artifact.
But unfortunately, the real threat to the gem comes in the form of misplaced trust. Raya’s father decides to invite all of the kingdoms to meet in Heart, naively believing he can be the one to bring everyone together once again. But jealousy and deception upend his attempt at unification and the gem is suddenly (conveniently) broken into five different pieces, each going to one of the kingdoms. The Druun is released on the land once again and starts turning everyone to stone, including those Raya loves most. Now it is up to Raya to try to recapture every piece of the gem and vanquish the Druun once and for all. But how is she going to do that without a dragon?
Think of RAYA as an animated action-adventure film in the vein of INDIANA JONES meets LORD OF THE RINGS. Though you have definitely seen movies like this before, with our hero going on different mini-quests to accomplish the final mission, RAYA also develops a distinct mythology for the history of her culture. This added world-building helps to distinguish the film from many of its predecessors. It was also really cool the amount of female representation in the cast. It may even be the most female-centric animated Disney film yet (but don’t quote me on that). Almost all of the main characters, including the villain, are female and voiced by Asian-American actresses.
And speaking of, I am so so so glad Kelly Marie Tran has such an amazing starring vehicle worthy of her talent. I have been bummed about the ridiculous toxicity Tran received from the Star Wars fanbase. But who cares about all of that now when she can be a freaking Disney princess (at least I think Raya is a princess?TBD)! I would take that any day. Tran’s fierce, courageous spirit comes through in every bit of dialogue. Awkwafina is also hilarious as ever, providing some much-needed levity to her character Sisu and reveling in self-deprecating humor. Her character’s critical introspection not only adds humor to the film, but also is important for character development, showing that her character does not yet have the trust in herself that she will need to defeat the Druun. Also, I know Tuk Tuk doesn’t really have a vocal performance, per se, but can we talk about how cute he/she is?! I am going to need a stuffed animal version ASAP.
Did I mention how beautiful the film is? It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years since we have seen an animated Disney film (FROZEN II in 2019). But after seeing RAYA, I know why. The animators put their hearts and souls into making this film one of the most visually stunning there has been. I know the depiction of hair, particularly its texture and movement, used to be the hallmark of animation. But in a movie like RAYA, the hair is just the beginning. It’s almost comical that Sisu is completely made out of hair, illustrating (literally) that this was small potatoes for this film. I also appreciated that they changed up the style of the animation in certain flashback scenes, to showcase their designs and pay tribute to the cultures depicted on-screen. The animation really takes on a life of its own and tells its own story through these
RAYA is a magnificent feast for the eyes, with a heartwarming message that is much needed for these times. The film is being released in theaters and on Disney+ for an additional $29.99. With its epic animation, I wish we could also see this film on the big screen. But I know for many of us, that isn’t really possible at this time. So if you can, see this film on the best (and biggest) TV you have. It is a touching, action-packed treat for the whole family.
My Review: B+
Photo Credit: Disney