After delivering arguably their best film so far this century with 'Moana' in 2016, capping off a stellar run that began with juggernaut hit 'Frozen' (2013), Walt Disney Animation Studios hit a few snags. The obnoxious 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' (2018) ranks among the worst animated films in the studio's history, and 'Frozen 2' (2019), while technically impressive, lacked the cohesive characters and story that made the first film so memorable. Thankfully, their latest film, 'Raya and the Last Dragon', finds them back on surer footing, albeit with a few stumbles.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi') is attempting to bring the land of Kumandra back together and make up for a mistake in her childhood, where a moment of misplaced trust resulted in the splitting of the magical dragon stone, further intensifying the antagonism between the five kingdoms of Kumandra and releasing the ancient fury of the Druun, elemental beings who turn all living creatures into stone. She believes her one hope is to find the last of the dragons, Sisu (Awkwafina, 'The Farewell', 'Crazy Rich Asians'), who has been missing for centuries, and to retrieve all the lost parts of the dragon stone. To do so though, she has to learn to rebuild her trust - not just in others, but in herself.
'Raya and the Last Dragon' ultimately turns out to be a rousing, thoroughly entertaining and gently moving film that delivers on most of its promises, but it gets off to a shaky start. The opening prologue sequence is rough in every respect, from the lacklustre writing, the over-the-top performances, the inconsistent rhythm, and the poor animation. There's a lot of backstory to cover, but this opening sequence - showing Raya as a young girl, her relationship with her father Benja (Daniel Dad Kim, 'Lost') and her betrayal from fellow princess Namaari (Gemma Chan, 'Captain Marvel') - never finds the right way to do so, and has you worried for the film ahead. It's too long, too complicated, never delivers on any emotional beats, and feels overwrought. It seems like a sequence that was late in the solving, and never sufficiently cracked. I point this out, because when the film cuts to Raya as an adult, crossing desolate desert landscapes atop her trusty armadillo-esque steed Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk, featured in all of the recent Disney animated films), the leap in quality comes almost as a shock. Where the opening lacks clarity and confidence, the film immediately finds both and pulls you right in.
Kelly Marie Tran makes for a refreshing, mature Disney protagonist, funnelling all of the empathy and intelligence she demonstrated in 'The Last Jedi' into her vocal performance. Raya is a character grounded in palpable trauma, of the loss of family and a crippling sense of guilt, but rather than play that as text, Tran's approach is to allow that subtext to bubble below the surface, fuelling her decisions subconsciously rather than dominating her narrative. This maturity is reflected in the design and animation of the character, giving Raya a still and commanding presence whenever she appears on screen. She's matched beautifully by the energy and optimism of Sisu, brought to life in a stellar performance by Awkwafina, the best in the film. In lesser hands, a character like this could have thrown the entire balance of the film off, eschewing the central emotional conceit in an attempt to keep children engaged, but Awkwafina finds the perfect balance for this. Sisu has a childlike optimism combined with a gentle wit and humour, and the chemistry between Sisu and Raya is instantaneous. If the film needed to rely on their dynamic alone, it would still be in great hands.
There's a lot of world-building going on in 'Raya' - a mythological mix of the many diverse cultures across South-East Asia - but it rarely feels the need to explain itself. This works often for the better; a clunky exposition-filled monologue is never as effective as gorgeous production design and well-considered characters. Each of the kingdoms we move through has a distinct look and texture, and along the way, Raya and Sisu collect a band of unlikely companions, each representing something about that kingdom. With every new sidekick, you brace yourself for the worst, but each is an absolute delight, adding their own dose of character, chaos and unexpected empathy, and manifesting the theme of the power in cooperation, acceptance and togetherness. Even the villains have more complexity than you would expect - with no Big Bad in sight, Namaari becomes the antagonist, trying to stop Raya from retrieving the pieces of the stone without realising Raya has found Sisu. Namaari's motivations are for the honour of her mother, Chieftess Virana (Sandra Oh, TV's 'Killing Eve') and the safety of her people, but there's a need in her to prove herself greater than Raya, just as impressive and important and righteous. Her reasons are complex, and as the film progresses, those complexities are allowed to come to the surface in unexpected ways, especially in the beautifully-pitched finale. In the end, many walls need to be broken down to unite Kumandra and defeat the Druun, but those walls are more emotional than physical - and ultimately for us, more satisfying to watch crumble.
It's that emotional core, even with some tremendous action set pieces and consistently well-pitched comedy, that makes 'Raya and the Last Dragon' an ultimately rousing experience. The most consistent theme in the Disney animated features is that of the lost or abandoned child finding their way in the world and their sense of self-worth. That search often takes the form of a quest they must complete, and along the way, they accumulate a newfound family that holds them up and brings them to the collective salvation they all seek. The characters in 'Raya' easily fall into this tradition, and beautifully so. The magic of Sisu leaping across the sky or the frightening destruction of the Druun is impressive to watch, but the moments of true spectacle in 'Raya' are those tender moments where these characters come together, share their pain and loss, and find ways to bridge the cultural divide that separates them. The film wisely doesn't complicate matters with any love interests or maniacal villains, but gives the characters room to breathe. There's a moment on a boat between Raya, Sisu and their first new companion, a scene-stealing 10-year-old named Boun (Izaac Wang, 'Good Boys') that's one of the most tender and beautiful in a Disney film in years, and gives you more insight into the hopes and dreams of these characters than any song or monologue could. There's a mature and tender heart to 'Raya and the Last Dragon' that elevates the adventure and offers a much stronger emotional foundation than certainly the prologue would suggest.
In the end, many walls need to be broken down to unite Kumandra and defeat the Druun, but those walls are more emotional than physically, and ultimately for us, more satisfying to watch crumble.
On top of that, it also delivers as a great piece of entertainment. The action sequences are well-executed, adopting a much more furious rhythm than we are used to from a Disney animated film. It has the confidence to pitch itself as an action-adventure film, and unlike almost all attempts to do this in Disney animation in the past, doesn't pull its punch at the last minute and actually commits to it. The humour also thankfully avoids lazy modern references and vernacular (well, in most cases), pursuing humour that's both genuine and rambunctious. I won't ruin any surprises, but one of the sidekicks Raya picks up along the way is a perfect example of that special brand of Disney chaos; a blast of cheeky creative anarchy that's wonderfully bizarre and wickedly audacious. The strength of the material makes up for the surprisingly muted animation. There's no question that 'Raya' looks gorgeous, but it does feel like a step down from the jaw-dropping visual beauty of 'Frozen 2', and no matter how beautifully realised Sisu is, she never quite competes with the benchmark of animated dragons, Toothless in the 'How to Train Your Dragon' trilogy.
There's always a moment of concern when Disney decides to focus its attention on a particular culture, their work not always demonstrating the sensitivity required in doing so. As a white Australian, I'm not the best person to comment on this, but I suspect that the decision to set it in a mythical land as opposed to a real country was a wise one, avoiding direct references that could cause offence and distress if mishandled, and it was a genuine thrill to see a voice cast entirely made up of actors of Asian cultural heritage, as well as key members of the creative team. This can only be a step in the right direction for allowing a more true and nuanced multicultural voice to be heard in Disney animation.
'Raya and the Last Dragon' is a solid step back in the right direction for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Over the past 20 years, they've struggled to find their confidence and voice as a studio, certainly due to complicated changes of leadership and the rise of genuine artistic and financial competitors, but 'Raya' is the kind of film in which they do their best work - an entertaining and exciting experience built on a strong protagonist with a clear motivation and a powerful internal conflict. The legacy of Disney animation has been to speak to the deep emotional truths of the human experience in a way that is accessible to anyone, and with its themes of self-belief, moving through grief and trauma, and finding the trust in others and ourselves, 'Raya and the Last Dragon' is a worthy part of that legacy.