Raya and the Last Dragon might be telling a very familiar story, but between the stunning animation, a cast of lovable characters, and a fresh outlook that is well overdue more than makes up for it being a little predictable.
Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Co-Directors: Paul Briggs and John Ripa
Summary: In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon.
There is nothing wrong with telling a story that we've all heard a million times over. That is what makes a classic story a classic. There is a reason that these stories keep coming up over and over again; there are some amazing ways to make something old look new through other forms of storytelling. In the case of Raya and the Last Dragon, they are very much telling a familiar story. A protagonist must hunt down a bunch of different pieces of a thing to put the thing back together and save the world. We know this story; we've seen the movie, watched the TV show, read the book, and played the video game. This movie isn't here to blow your mind with its story's originality. Instead, it's going to blow your mind via its characters, setting, and animation.
Our fellowship and the movie even calls them a fellowship at one point is just as lovely as the one we knew in Lord of the Rings if a little more geared toward kids. That doesn't stop these characters' tragedy as they are essentially living through the end of the world. Everyone that the Druun touches turn to stone, and while they were brought back once many years ago, that doesn't mean it can happen again. There is little difference between Raya riding through Kumandra and seeing groups of stone people and someone moving through a Mad Max type world and stumbling upon a mass grave. The movie, to its credit, doesn't shy away from this fact in a couple of different ways that would be varying levels of spoilers. There is an underlying sense that these are the end days, and this group of people coming together is the only one who can stop it.
Our protagonist is determined but not exactly ready to get the backup from said fellowship. Raya has been burned before, and she has her reasons for not trusting anyone she comes across and even Sisu to an extent. She wants to believe that this can bring back the people that were lost, but the theme of the movie is all about trust. "Maybe the world is broken because you don't trust anyone," Sisu says. That trust, or lack of it, is present in our antagonist Namaari. Disney is well known for its black and white villains, but Namaari and the land of Fang are very much not classic antagonists. There is more nuance here than people will be expecting.
On a pure voice-acting level, everyone is bringing their A-game. Kelly Marie Tran gives Raya some real heart, and you really feel for her, Awkafina is very much challenging the great Robin Williams with Sisu, but it's Thalia Tran and Izacc Wang, who play Little Noi and Boun respectively, that walk away with the entire movie. Both of their arcs are tragic, and how Thalia Tran is a lot like Vin Diesel while voicing Groot only on another level. Diesel at least had words to say while Tran is left to give across all emotions by baby gibberish. For someone so young, it's a hell of a performance. Gemma Chan also brings the nuance in her performance of Namaari, and kids are going to walk away liking her as much as Raya by the end of the day.
The animation is absolutely stunning. There is a lot of love put into this film, from the way the different lands are shot to how everyone is dressed to the food that everyone eats. This was a labor of love for the people involved, and it's very clear by the end of the film. Much like the end of Moana, this is a film where the ending is here to kick your ass whether you're an adult or a kid. All the beats don't always land, but this movie is swinging for the fences in the best possible way to take a basic story and turn it into something special. The pacing can be a bit off, and sometimes it feels like the first and second acts are really dragging their feet. However, there is a lot of lore this movie wants all of us to know so we can be invested in Kumandra's return just as much as Raya is.
Raya and the Last Dragon might not be the most original story ever made, but the work and love put into the animation, the setting, and the characters mark it as an important cultural touchstone. The third act hits hard, and the ending is quite lovely, and the music is going to join some of the Disney best. Was there a more original story Disney could have told? Maybe, but the extra focus on everyone else more than makes up for it, even it keeps the movie from being perfect at the end of the day.