Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) Review

The new Disney animated movie gets a distinctly Southeast Asian twist in Raya and the Last Dragon, which centres on the titular warrior princess’ (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) quest to search for the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). Here, we learn the once-thriving (fictional) Kumandra used to have humans and dragons living together peacefully until the arrival of fearsome monsters called Druun changes everything. They destroy everyone in their paths by turning humans into stones. Although the dragons managed to defeat the monsters, they have to pay a heavy price after sacrificing themselves to save humanity.

Raya’s quest is more than just about searching for the aforementioned last dragon but also looking to retrieve all the broken magical stones from the four different tribes: Fang, Tail, Spine and Talon. The stones, of course, refers to the one created by the dragon and has since safeguarded by Raya’s father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe. It was originally an entire stone before Raya’s friend-turned-enemy, Namaari (Gemma Chan) of the Fang tribe trying to steal it when an ensuing fight causes the stone to break into pieces.

As expected, the animation from character designs to backgrounds are all visually gorgeous — a result of combining various Southeast Asian culture, tradition and mythology derived from countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Fight scenes are fluid and well-choreographed while James Newton Howard’s contemporary Southeast Asian-style music deserves mention as well.

Kelly Marie Tran delivers enough sass and charisma to her feisty role as Raya and she has wonderful chemistry with Awkwafina’s offbeat dragon Sisu (she has the look that instantly reminded me of Falkor from Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 fantasy film The NeverEnding Story). The rest of the characters are adequate enough, even though it’s kind of a missed opportunity to see Gemma Chan’s antagonist turn as Namaari comes off as disappointingly mediocre. If only the movie spends ample time focusing on the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, it would have been a better result.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and Sisu the dragon (Awkwafina) in Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon" (2021)

Co-directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, working from Qui Nguyen and Malaysian-born Adele Lim’s (of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians fame) screenplay, are pretty much sticking close to the typical Disney formula. In other words, if you have seen enough Disney animated movies in the past, you basically know what to expect here. Clocking at nearly 2 hours long (and boy, it sure feels lengthy), Raya and the Last Dragon is as painfully clichéd as it goes, complete with obligatory life lessons — in this case, trust, harmony and forgiveness.

Strangely enough, the overall narrative feels hollow and even lacks both emotional wallop and dramatic urgency, particularly the way the story is told. For instance, there aren’t many stakes that happened when Raya attempts to retrieve every broken piece of stone from the different tribes.

Raya and the Last Dragon could have been a new Disney classic-in-the-making if not for the movie’s lack of originality and decision of playing safe with the formula. Prior to the movie, there’s a Disney short titled Us Again about an elderly couple reliving their glory days while dancing in the rain. Directed by Zach A. Parrish, it’s a simple but charming story about mortality and rekindles the passion. The silent-film style with no dialogues spoken whatsoever other than body gestures and movements is a nice touch. The dance choreography does remind me of the old Hollywood musicals of the yesteryears, with vibrant animation all around.