Walt Disney Animation Studios lately has excelled at worldbuilding. Creating new lands with their own rules, politics, and lifestyles, all of which is entertaining to watch and think about after seeing the movie. Their new film Raya and the Last Dragon is no exception. The film’s setting is Kumandra, a formerly peaceful land that has been split into five factions through prejudice. The prejudice between these factions? Caused by a set of dragons unintentionally. The dragons sacrificed their lives to keep the people alive. It was the only way to keep people safe from the mystical Druun, who turn folks to stone just by touch. And yet, their heroism is ignored.
The film begins with a stunning prologue, showcasing how Kumandra came to be and how it destroyed itself. This soon leads to the introduction of Raya, the latest Disney Princess, and her epic quest to save the world. It’s certainly a more adventurous piece. Perhaps the most action-heavy piece in the Disney Animation canon. But at the same time, this has many of the hallmarks people associate with the studio. Gorgeous visuals, memorable characters, and a heartfelt, emotional story with distinct messaging.
Raya and the Last Dragon is great as both an action movie and a traditional Disney tale. But what directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada created excels as one of the best Disney Animation titles in recent years. With some jaw-dropping animation and sharp writing, Raya is a fantastic joy ride through and through.
Masterclass of Animation
The world of Kumandra is a lovely one to watch. The landscapes and backgrounds are incredible, as the locations Raya visits are full of life and creativity. Every faction has a unique style, in terms of architecture, weather, and general aesthetic, and it’s fun to see the animators play around with each location. These locations also lead to one great action set piece after another. The action is fast-paced and the settings are utilized well. Alongside this are some gorgeous shots, creative choreography and stunning venues.
The character designs also pop. Raya’s energy and emotions are great, the water dragon Sisu has some fantastic performances, both comedic and serious, and everybody from the supporting cast have unique looks and mannerisms. The cunning Boun and shifty Namaari are some of the strongest designs here.
Another Great Princess
The characters found in Raya and the Last Dragon have great designs to them. And thankfully, the character traits and personalities shine too. Raya herself is an entertaining lead. Her isolated personality is an interesting one and explained well through an almost tragic betrayal early on in the film. This also leads to her being really fun as a lone warrior during the action set pieces.
Contrasting Raya is Sisu, the water dragon that is reincarnated after turning into stone 500 years ago. This means she has a more naive, more hopeful view of the world, unaware of how Kumandra has divided itself. This leads to a fantastic dynamic between her and Raya. The odd couple-style repertoire is humorous, but also dives into some interesting storylines about trust and forgiveness. Sisu is also helped by Awkwafina’s stunning voice performance, bringing plenty of laughs as well as sensitivity to the dragon.
The film is also peppered by an incredible supporting cast, most notably the heroes that tag along with Raya’s adventure. The aforementioned Boun, alongside the con artist toddler Noi and stoic Cheif Benga, all have great personalities and a strong sense of heart that gives the story even more weight and nuance. There’s also the antagonist Namaari, a tragic figure who has an arc that’s just as compelling as Raya herself.
Each character further serves the main theme of the narrative; that being trust. Raya goes through betrayal early on, and suffers a horrifying loss. And as the film builds, it challenges Raya’s perspectives. Both her grief and actions are understandable. But it also turns into something hopeful and heartfelt, as it asks Raya and the audience to still find hope and show respect to others. It’s truly beautiful stuff, and props to writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen for finding such a great balance.
To Sum Up…
There’s so much to love about Raya and the Last Dragon. It takes the familiar crowd-pleasing moments most love from Disney and adds some inventive animation and powerful themes. Every character is memorable, only helping push the strong ideas of trust and loss and community. It’s a heartfelt piece that is well worth watching and serves as one of the absolute best at a time when Disney Animation has been consistently strong.
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