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Raya and the Last Dragon

When theaters began shutting their doors and patrons began searching for other avenues in which to get their movie fix during the COVID pandemic, studios looked for ways to deliver their big-named blockbusters without taking catastrophic losses. Some films had release dates that were constantly being shifted back (BLACK WIDOW) while others forged ahead and were released despite the logistical nightmare that they were facing (I’m looking at you, TENET.)

For the release of the much-anticipated live-action remake of MULAN, Disney tried something a little different. The decision was made to release the $200 million adaptation on their streaming service, Disney Plus, but there was a caveat. Rather than making the film available for all subscribers, viewers had to fork over an additional $29.99 to watch it. While some would argue that the final product did not justify the added cost, the strategy was successful enough that Disney employed the same tactics with the release of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON.

Unlike the polarizing MULAN, there will be few complaints when dropping the extra dough for the thrilling RAYA. Standing alongside MOANA as the very best that Disney animation (excluding Pixar) has released in the past 20 years, the thrilling adventure checks every box when it comes to crafting a modern classic.

There was a time when dragons lived in harmony with humans. Co-existing in a beautiful utopia known as Kumandra, where resources were plentiful and the human inhabitants were peacefully spread across all lands, it was nothing short of paradise. When a group of devastating virus-like monsters called Druun invaded, however, everything fell apart. The Druun spread and replicated rapidly, feeding on the life force of humans, and turning them into statues. In a last-ditch effort to stop the invading force, the remaining dragons used their various forms of magic to create an orb that was to be used as a weapon. The dragons were all turned to stone themselves, but the orb worked, and the monsters were seemingly defeated.

500 years later, Kumandra is no more. The factions have split and only care about themselves. Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe trains his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to be a protector of the orb, which remains under their care. Each one of the other tribes (Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail) wants the orb for themselves, and when Raya inadvertently allows others access to the orb, a battle ensues, the magical artifact breaks into several pieces, and each tribe snatches a shard for themselves. As this happens, the Druun return, and once again forge a hostile takeover of the land and its people. They take countless souls in this initial onslaught, including Chief Benja.

For the next six years, Raya hunts for Sisu (Awkwafina), who many believe was the dragon who created the orb that saved the world. In one of the last areas left for her to check, Raya miraculously finds the dragon and brings her back to life. The two share an immediate bond and set out to collect all of the pieces of the orb in hopes of unlocking the magic that destroyed the Druun, to begin with. Along the way, they forge friendships, encounter enemies, and learn the importance of family and friendship.

The animation in RAYA is beyond beautiful. While Pixar continues to redefine the way we look at animated films, and the stunning originality of Cartoon Saloon’s WOLFWALKERS was a wonder to behold, every frame of RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a rich, textural, dazzling display of art that shimmers and shines. Despite its complexity, it is flawless and awe-inspiring. Bursting with colors and life, I found myself delighted to soak it all in at all times, realizing that for as much as I was appreciating, there was even more that I was not.

All elements of classic Disney adventures are here, and yet RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON never feels like “the same old thing.” Raya is the type of princess that parents have been clamoring for. Tran expertly captures the essence of this ground-breaking warrior. She is strong, independent, intelligent, and fearless. She is not perfect, yet not so fundamentally flawed that there is no true hope of redemption. While she faces several perilous situations, she is never the damsel in distress, and she certainly doesn’t need to rely on some macho man to save the day. Furthermore, while Sisu provides plenty of comic relief, thanks in large part to the endlessly talented Awkwafina, she too is a complex and powerful character. The chemistry between the two is spot-on, easily instilling within the audience a passion for them to succeed. Triumphant in every aspect, this is the type of family adventure that audiences of been yearning for, and spectacular addition to the Disney catalog.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON
(Now streaming on Disney Plus Premiere)

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON RATED: PG
RUN TIME: 1h 47min
GENRE: Animation, Action, Adventure STARRING: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan DIRECTORS: Don Hall, López Estrada WRITERS: Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim

GRADE: A

Brian Miller
Film Critic
Based out of Central New York, Brian Miller is a film critic who works in television, radio, and print. Providing passionate and energetic takes on every movie he sees, he looks for the best in a movie, not the worst.