I always look forward to a new Disney movie, and after I saw the last trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon I had my hopes up. She looked like an awesome character, the theme and plot seemed to be promising, and it felt action packed and exciting. Unfortunately the film didn’t quite live up to everything I wanted it to be. While there were a lot of positives, it felt fairly predictable and never really got to me emotionally. I also struggled with some of the ideas presented in the movie, which I’ll get to later.
The gist of the movie is this – over the past 500 years the kingdom of Kumandra has splintered into 5 different tribes, who struggle with each other to have power of the dragon orb, a magical item which saved humanity 500 years ago. When Raya is a child the disagreements between the tribes come to a head, ending in the orb being destroyed into 5 pieces (with each tribe grabbing a piece). Unfortunately, the destruction of the gem releases the Druun, evil spirits who turn people into stone.
6 years after this event Raya is trying to fix the kingdom and bring back her father, who has been petrified into stone. Step one is finding the last dragon, which turns out to be the easy part – the real challenge is getting all 5 pieces of the gemstone back together. This is particularly difficult as the different tribes do not trust each other and won’t want to just hand over their gems. Raya heads off on her quest, gathering together a ragtag group to help her along the way.
To begin with I want to dig into some of the positives of the movie before I get into the negatives. There will be some spoilers ahead so be warned.
The animation in this movie is stunning. The backdrops are gorgeous, but it’s not just that. The way the culture is presented is beautiful and nuanced. There are a lot of action scenes and they are extremely well done. This is even more impressive when you consider how much of the work for the film was done individually at home by the people involved on the film during 2020. What an amazing accomplishment.
Food and Culture
Kumandra is a fictional place, but it’s influenced by Southeast Asian culture. I don’t know a lot about that first hand so I can’t speak to all the accuracy, but from my perspective it was inspiring and appealing. I particularly loved the outfits and the food. Food isn’t a main plotline by any means (not in the way it is in something like Princess and the Frog), but it plays a subtle role. This article about the food in Raya and the Last Dragon from Paste Magazine does a great job delving into how food is presented as a metaphor throughout the film. It also served to present different flavors than Americans might be used to experiencing and it looked delicious and made me hungry (and caused my husband to order ramen after the movie was over!).
Humor in Raya and the Last Dragon
There are some very funny laugh out loud moments in Raya and the Last Dragon, most of them from Sisu the dragon. Sometimes her jokes are a little over the top, but I can definitely see the appeal for kids. Things like the “Toot ‘n’ Boom” bugs are sure to have little ones giggling (yes, they are pretty much just what they sound like. Toot is exactly what you’re thinking). But it’s not an over the top humorous movie, with a lot of darker themes woven in. I thought the balance of humor and seriousness was very well done.
Voice cast of Raya and the Last Dragon
I thought the voice cast did an excellent job here. I was particularly impressed with both Kelly Marie Tran (Raya) and Awkwafina (Sisu). Tran manages to make Raya a character we root for and admire while also dealing with grief and anger. She presents Raya in a way where we get her – she may not always be doing the right thing or the nice thing, but we understand why she feels the way she does and the emotional stakes she’s grappling with. Awkwafina manages to make Sisu both funny and sweet, which is no small task given the character. She’s almost annoyingly optimistic, but when it comes time for a more emotional moment Awkwafina captures the feeling well.
Also worth mentioning is Gemma Chan as Namaari, Raya’s main antagonist. Though I personally feel that the character should have been given more time to develop (while cutting other things because the movie is rather long!), Chan does a good job at what she has. She portrays the complexities of her characters really well despite the fact that we don’t get as much explanation of what she’s going through as we might like.
Other main cast members include:
- Daniel Dae Kim as Chief Benja (Lost, Hawaii Five-0, Legend of Korra)
- Benedict Wong as Tong (Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame)
- Sandra Oh as Virana (Grey’s Anatomy)
- Lucille Soong as Dang Hu (Fresh off the Boat, Desperate Housewives)
- Alan Tudyk as TukTuk (Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Moana, Firefly)
- Izaac Wang as Boun
- Thalia Tran as Little Noi
Characters in Raya and the Last Dragon
Now we get into a bit of my positives and negatives. I really like Raya as a character. She’s interesting and relatable. She is flawed, but it’s understandable – who wouldn’t feel the same way in her position? And of course she’s got the whole warrior thing going on, which is just plain cool. But aside from her, we never really get to know the characters as much as I would like to. Part of that is because we are introduced to a lot of people (and creatures) in a short period of time. The movie spends more time on fantasy world building and explaining mythology than it does on character development, which I think is a huge flaw.
I would have loved to see more of Namaari in particular. She is kind of at the crux of the whole story. It’s Namaari who we need to trust. She is clearly torn and trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. It’s not that simple. It’s not as easy as just handing of her piece of the gemstone to bring everyone back to life. Because the world isn’t that simple, and she knows if things go back to the way they were her people will be living lives inferior to the Heart kingdom, and she wants something better for them. We never really see her think about all this though, it’s only hinted at.
It also would have been great to explore the relationship between Raya and Namaari more. I know some people were clamoring for a relationship between these two, and I totally get it – they definitely have a bit of a flirtatious vibe with each other. But whether romantic or friendship, their relationship is tumultuous. After the movie ends you have to wonder where you go from there… wrapping things up nicely as friends (or more) at the end is ignoring all of the complex emotions they must be feeling about not only the world the events that just occurred, but how they’ve treated each other for the past 6 years.
erall the plot is probably one of the weakest points of the movie. I can forgive a weak plot if there’s great character development, but it felt like that character development was sacrificed to throw in all of these plot elements that feel predictable and reminiscent of other Disney movies. There are vibes of Moana, Aladdin, and Frozen.
I also just never felt that emotional connection to this movie. I’m pretty susceptible to emotions so it doesn’t take a ton for me to feel connected to a film – whether it’s through a theme I relate to like with Soul, a character I love like in Princess and the Frog, or just powerfully created characters like Wanda in WandaVision. Other people may take something more emotional from this movie because they relate to a certain aspect where I do not, but for me it fell flat.
It should have been this big inspirational moment, where humanity united over her sacrifice. But instead, people being people, they all fought to possess the last remnant of dragon magic.— Raya and the Last Dragon
The main theme of Raya and the Last Dragon
My biggest issue with the movie was the overall theme, which is basically that everyone needs to trust each other. Even though I’m typically an optimistic realist, and I trust people “more than I should” according to some, I wonder if I’m at a point where I’m too cynical for the movie this message is trying to send. Possibly a year ago I would have related to it more, but after this past year I just ended up feeling like how Raya feels throughout the majority of the movie – even when you want to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt they just screw you over.
Raya’s ba says to her “Listen, if we don’t stop and learn to trust one another again, it’s only a matter of time before we tear each other apart. This isn’t the world I want you to live in. I believe that we can be Kumandra again. But someone has to take the first step. Trust me.”
It’s hard not to draw the obvious real world parallels here. I mean, we’re basically talking about a global pandemic and people have to work together and trust each other to get out of it but instead they fight and make things worse. I can’t help but feel like I started out trusting people last spring and they let me down. Raya and the Last Dragon seems to be saying that ultimately people should be trusted and all want what’s best even if they don’t always go about it the right way. And I just have a hard time buying into that. I mean, at least all of the people in Kumandra recognize the big problem and want to fix it, even if they don’t trust each other on how to do it. I’m just saying – this movie is missing the tribe of people who deny that the Druun is causing any of this or that being petrified into stone really isn’t that bad, and maybe those who were turned into stone were just too slow to outrun them or were old and going to die anyway.
Yeah, obviously I’m jaded. Maybe in a few years I can be more hopeful and this movie will have more of an impact. Throughout the movie Raya is basically shamed by Sisu for not being willing to trust the woman who betrayed her and for being hesitant of trusting strangers who she knows won’t like her because of where she’s from. In today’s world the overall idea of trusting someone no matter how they’ve treated you feels problematic.
Maybe that all means that it’s important to emphasize a message of unity even more. Maybe our kids can learn to trust and forgive and make the world a better place than we’ve made it. I just wish the message had been presented in a way that was a bit more nuanced and understanding, rather than a generic theme of unity and “trust each other no matter what.” I think the theme of not judging based on differences and getting along is better presented in Zootopia.
Finally, in terms of the ultimate climax of the movie and how they all do eventually decide to trust each other… well, I’m just going to say that I think it’s a lot easier to “choose” to trust someone when you’re in a situation where you don’t really have many other choices.
Is Raya and the Last Dragon worth paying for?
The movie is available on Disney+ for premiere access at $30. It’s also in theaters if you’re comfortable doing that or lucky enough to be vaccinated. Is it worth buying? Depends on what you’re looking for and what movies you like. If you appreciate good visuals and want to see a different culture represented you’ll find things to appreciate. If you’re like me and most concerned about characters you may not find it hits home. Though if you’re a diehard Disney fan you might want to splurge for it just so you can get in on the conversation. I didn’t love it but it was decent. I don’t feel the need to watch it again anytime soon though.
3 stars out of 5. A solid movie if not anything impressive, with some great things going for it but other problematic elements.
Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What did you think of it?