Raya and the Last Dragon follows an adventure in a land shaped like a dragon. The different divisions are named after the different parts of the creature: Fang, Talon, Spine, Tail, and Heart. 500 years ago the evil Druun began consuming everything and killed most dragons, leaving the final five to sacrifice themselves to create an orb with magic that seals the purple, smoky beasties away. The orb is stored in Heart, but when the other factions come for it the thing gets broken and the Druun return. 6 years later we watch Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as she struggles to find the last dragon (Awkwafina), rebuild the orb (of course each faction has one piece), and bring the lands together. Her frenemy, Princess Namaari of Fang (Gemma Chan), is in pursuit on orders to capture the orb pieces to save her own
This thing is sweet and adorable in ways that are conflicting, but somehow it works. It’s more violent than I would have expected for this level of Disney movie, but it’s balanced by the message that these cycles of violence repeat until we begin to put aside our differences and trust each other. Something like that hasn’t been explored to this degree in a Disney movie, and while it sounds cloying the world is so lush and exciting that it levels out.
And the world is indeed the star of the show. There’s a huge roly-poly/hedgehog thing named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) and he is now my new best friend. There’s a big burly Spine boy named Tong (Benedict Wong) that is a giant teddy bear and he is also my best friend. During this adventure I befriended a toddler named Noi (Thalia Tran) that’s pulling heists with her three monkey friends. I was also privileged to meet Boun (Izaac Wong), a boy that owns a boat and uses it as a floating restaurant to serve shrimp soup to hungry masses. There are wildcats that you ride like a mighty steed. The dragon, Sisu, is a glorious and beautiful water dragon. Are you getting the picture yet?
These glorious characters are charming and sweet, but the animation surrounding them is some next-level stuff. I love the presence of bright colors and smooth movement that was used, moving the world from something familiar to something unique. The dragons are bright and each thing they do is accompanied by a flourish of fur or a splash of water suspended in the air. Some of the water animations surrounding the ship look real, and the way Sisu moves through it is breathtaking in moments. I’m not kidding, the film truly does look that stunning throughout and it’s coupled with the message of the movie to create something truly special.
James Newton Howard has created the score and it’s like nothing I’ve heard from him before. He works with traditional Chinese themes, but there’s some Disney magic sprinkled in there through fairy dust or some shit and it just makes everything feel bigger and bombastic. It’s not my favorite of his scores (The Village remains his greatest achievement), but it’s a charming backdrop to the story.
End of the day I just hope this film isn’t forgotten. The loss of a theatrical release is a tragedy for films like this, special things that are created solely to teach kids to trust people and be nice to each other. It’s such a basic message that’s delivered with no fluff and I think it’s one that’s so important today. It’s fitting that I watched this back-to-back with Judas and the Black Messiah, a film portraying Fred Hampton’s ability to walk into a room full of redneck racists and befriend them through trust and common goals. That film is a violent message, but Raya and the Last Dragon is a family-friendly story of that same energy while also discussing the idea that the lack of trust leads to cycles of violence that are the true destruction of our society. It’s beautiful, sweet, and I love it.
Raya and the Last Dragon is currently available on Disney+ for the ridiculous price of $30.