Raya And The Last Dragon Review: A Revolutionary Disney Princess
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Review: Raya And The Last Dragon Is A Revolutionary Disney Princess Movie With Amazing Performances

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BY March 2, 2021

Disney’s latest animated adventure is Raya and the Last Dragon. This release comes as Disney shifts its focus to streaming, a strategy adopted before the pandemic through the movie business into upheaval. Raya and the Last Dragon is the second film released to the Disney Premier Access progam, the first being the live-action Mulan. The new movie has gorgeous visuals with Southeast Asian influences that tell the story of a world ravaged, with a young woman as their only hope. It’s got action, emotion, and lots of humor via the always charming Awkwafina. Interestingly, I found as I wrote this review, I like Raya and the Last Dragon even more than I did while watching it.

Disney’s First Post-Apocalyptic Movie? 

Raya And The Last Dragon review Father. Image via Disney Plus.

The movie starts with the setting of a post-apocalyptic world, definitely a first for a Disney movie. The fictional world of Kumandra has a rich history, featuring Dragons that brought them peace and harmony. However, an ancient evil threat known as the Druun saw all the Dragons wiped out. The ultimate sacrifice of the Last Dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) saved everything. However, a remnant of that dragon magic, a gem created a new problem. Various nations claimed ownership of it, creating new conflict. 

Raya and the Last Dragon is about the titular character, from the Heart tribe, the ones who have the gem now. Raised as a guardian of the Dragon Gem, Raya’s (Kelly Marie Tran) father instills the idealism within her that might unite the world. But a mistake on her part ends up making things worse, leading to the desolate world the movie opens with. This changes Raya, as she attempts to find redemption by seeking out the Last Dragon to help fix her mistake.

Raya And The Last Dragon Shows It’s Unlike Any Other Disney Princess Movie

Raya And The Last Dragon review Raya. Image via Disney Plus.

Raya is the daughter of the leader of one of the nations in this fictional world. So, like royalty. Therefore, she is a princess, for all intents and purposes. Making this a Disney Princess movie, and one that does not conform to the traditional norms of what such movie should be like. For example, the film lacks a love story. Romance is not even a plot point here. Raya and the Last Dragon instead, focuses on the determination of its main character, but in a way that also subverts the hero-looking-for-redemption tropes. 

Raya is the main character of the movie. Yet the storytellers blend her narrative with one about the world. They try to balance idealism with practicality. While the message is at times hammered home, it doesn’t take away from the experience. It would also be unfair to describe this movie as Raya’s journey when it’s actually the journey of this entire world, represented by a key few. And the challenges they overcome to believe and trust in one another in order to literally, change the world.

The New Disney Movie Feels Very Relevant 

Dragon. Raya And The Last Dragon review Image via Disney Plus.

The Druun are these strange beings who end up destroying the world, almost like a plague. The ultimate message of the movie is for everyone to come together and fight against these creatures. The whole thing feels very on-the-nose to what the world experienced during 2020, though it’s unclear how much those events could have influenced the story. It takes years to make these films. Still, this wouldn’t be a fair review of Raya and the Last Dragon if I didn’t point out that messages like these work better when they’re more subtext than text.

Especially when there’s a lot in Raya that completely subverts the usual Disney movie tropes. For one, this is not a musical. And despite the ‘aww ’s of disappointment from my young daughters, the choice to make this movie not a musical, definitely serves the gravity of the story. There’s also a level of realism when it comes to the tension in the action scenes, which is much more effective when the film stays grounded. And yes, I realize there’s a talking dragon in the movie. When engaging with a genre story we accept certain impossible things. This is why it’s so important to present the characters, the conflict, and the emotion of the story in relatable ways. 

Changing Up the Hero Dynamic and the Incredible Action

Raya And The Last Dragon review Neemari. Image via Disney Plus.

Raya is an amazing character. She has a singular goal and is focused on achieving it. Throughout the entire movie, Raya serves the story and not the other way around. In many ways, Raya is a freedom fighter or activist fighting to save the world at the expense of her own safety. And those aspects are never glorified or exaggerated either. Which makes Raya one of my favorite Disney Princesses ever! Her strong characterization in Raya and the Last Dragon is a large part of why my review is so positive.

One thing I loved is how comfortable she is in combat. The character also never misses a comedic beat. She is as adept with sharp quips as she is with her sharp sword. It’s an action dynamic we rarely see in a Disney princess movie. Tran brings Raya to life with an amazing performance that makes me want to see more of her in sequels and even a live-action adaptation. Her chemistry with Awkwafina is so much fun to watch. Sometimes Sisu feels like she’s straight out of a 90’s Disney movie, which is either a compliment or a criticism depending on individual tastes. 

No Unnecessary Conflict to Force A Happy Ending

Raya And The Last Dragon review Sisu. Image via Disney Plus.

This Raya and the Last Dragon review is kind of harping on the subversion of tropes, but it is truly unlike many Disney or animated movies. The messages of hope, unity, idealism, and other world-changing ideals are crystal clear. The conflict in the story comes from society’s greed and impulsive behavior, and can thereby can only be solved by changing what everyday people accept as their status quo. There is no big bad battle scene wrapped up in a happy ending. These harsh realities, dulled enough for the kids by the animated movie aesthetic, is very effective in conveying the heart of those themes.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cultural depictions and influences of the film. In many ways, the representation shown in Raya is incredible. The voice cast of Raya impresses with talent such as Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, and Benedict Wong bringing the animated characters to life. There are also wonderful Southeast Asian cultural influences of this fictional world, which adds a layer of vibrancy and uniqueness that has been sorely missing from animated films in general, and Disney movies in particular. I definitely recommend this movie for all ages, for a truly different kind of Disney movie experience. 

Raya And The Last Dragon releases on Disney Plus Premium Access on March 5. 

Featured image via Disney. 

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Shah Shahid is an entertainment writer, movie critic (so he thinks), host of the Split Screen Podcast (on Apple Podcasts & everywhere else) and filmy father on a mission to educate his girls on decades of film history. Armed with uncontrollable sarcasm and cautious optimism, Shah loves discussing film, television and comic book content until his wife’s eyes glaze over. So save her by engaging him on his own blog at BlankPageBeatdown.com or on Twitter @theshahshahid.

          

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