Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is a five-star classic with formulaic storytelling!
Animation is something that revolutionized the movie industries throughout the decades thanks to these rousing, early animation gurus of Winsor McCay, Chuck Jones, the Fleischer brothers, and lastly, Walt Disney. After the release of Frozen 2, Raya and the Last Dragon becomes the 59th animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios as well as the studio’s first original film since Moana. Though, there were several theatrical-release delays and minor setbacks of the film due to COVID-19 pandemic. But no need to frown because this film is officially up in theaters this week and on Disney+ simultaneously. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, this film features the stars of Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina in their main leading roles.
Raya and the Last Dragon focuses on the female warrior named Raya whose main mission is to track down the very last dragon in order to stop a group of sinister monsters called Druun once and for all. However, along the way, she soon discovers that the main problem is not only does it take a lot of dragon magic and needy assistance from the dragon to save the world — it's also going to take trust to build and conquer entirely.
Star Wars regular Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) voices the titular character Raya while actress and singer Awkwafina (The Farewell) appears as the voice of Sisu, the titular dragon, supporting the protagonist. The chemistry between Tran and Awkwafina is nicely put together for that classical buddy, comedy feature film, especially when it comes to strengthening one’s character development to the other, which is one of the most traditional chore being placed for traditional Disney and Pixar films. Despite working on an animated film, it may seem hard to both Tran and Awkwafina entirely, but they both knew how to do their jobs properly at the directors’ behest.
Raya and the Last Dragon serves as a directorial debut for long-time Disney animator Paul Briggs (Big Hero 6) who serves as co-director of the film while Jennifer Lee (Frozen), taking the leadership role as the studios’ Chief Creative Officer following John Lasseter’s departure, is involved as an executive producer of the film. Thanks to the direction coming from Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, and Paul Briggs, the animation and the story seem to be very realistic (and magical) increasingly throughout the film. The film’s narrative structure, the themes, and the CGI the directors and the team drew upon have successfully captured every Asian cultural element there is as studied to make this film highly anticipated and extremely questionable on how the story, the characters, the scenes, and the craftsmanship flow in a number of levels.
Not only the story’s integrity and the animation itself, but the settings and the authentic-Asian representation of the film have hit hard on core compared to the real-life countries of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and other Asian countries the filmmakers and animators have traveled or influenced. The representation for the story gives a nostalgic feel of DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda films due to the style and similarities being used in the film, even when it involves adding the simplistic actional sequences which bring the whole climax down altogether for a one big opportunity to see and to learn thanks to the subtle, visionary writing teams of Qui Nguyen, Osnat Shurer (Pixar short Boundin, Moana), Peter del Vecho, and Crazy Rich Asians alumni Adele Kim.
After handling music-composing duties from his previous Disney animated films Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet, James Newton Howard returns to the animation studio to score this film, utilizing his skills and influences from his previous works, plus a usage of the works of Hans Zimmer and John Powell in order to create a stunning, colorful dynamics to give the film a few bonus points.
As the studio is getting diverse, the majority of the voice cast all consisted of Asian American actors who have done an exquisite job keeping up with their characters right there. Here, we have Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as a corrupted warrior Namarri, Daniel Dae Kim (2010’s Hawaii Five-O series) as Raya’s father Chief Benja, Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) as Virana, Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War) as Tong, and the studio’s mainstay Alan Tudyk (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen) as Tuk Tuk, Raya’s pill bug pet.
With all the colors and the magic being shown, Raya and the Last Dragon is a wonderful two-hour delight for fans and audiences out there. The cast and the crew did a terrific job of making this possible, especially Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina. Whether you will see this at home or at a movie theater, this animated tale is a “must” and I think, with strong confidence, Raya and the Last Dragon has even more potential compared to the previous Disney animated films like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana. You will love it, trust me, it’s a five-star classic. Like I said before, I’m a sucker for Disney and Pixar films. And speaking of that, I’m also excited for Encanto, another Disney animated flick, on the way this year as well as Pixar’s Luca which comes out this summer.
One more thing, if you’re planning on seeing this in theaters, Raya and the Last Dragon will be accompanied by a new short film, Us Again, directed by Zach Parrish.
(Review by Henry Pham)