Film Review: The Family Friendly “Raya and the Last Dragon”

raya and the last dragon 2021 - movie poster film one sheet reviewAfter dozens upon dozens of successful animated features, it certainly seems like Disney has a playbook for its family-friendly fare. Subtract a parent, add some pathos, include a few cute babies or animals, and drop it all into the context of a prototypical modern hero’s journey. Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest in a long line of films that showcase just how well it all works and the result is a great success. I watched a screener with my adult children and they all laughed, ooh’d and ahh’d over the cute animals, and generally had nothing but good to say about the two hour film.

At the center of the story is Raya (voice of Kelly Tran), daughter of Chief Benja (voice of Daniel Dae Kim). They lead Heart, one of five kingdoms that make up the mythical land of Kumandra, regions that have been at war with each other for centuries. In an earlier era, the world was whole, but then the Druun came, swirling black clouds that turned people to stone. The dragons fought the Druun, eventually pouring all their collective magical powers into the Dragon Gem as they wiped out the evil Druun at the cost of their own survival. Hundreds of years later, it’s up to Chief Benja and his daughter, Princess Raya, to protect the Dragon Gem, the most coveted item in Kumandra.

For his own part, Chief Benja is convinced that if everyone just trusted each other and worked for the betterment of the world, peace could be restored and the fractured land could become whole again. Raya’s not so sure, and when she reaches out to Princess Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan) of Fang land, things go awry and the tensions between the regions bubble over into outright chaos.

So begins the hero’s journey: To end the strife, warrior princess Raya must unite all the fragments of the now-shattered Dragon Gem, each of which is jealously guarded in one of the five lands. Along the way she meets up with hilarious 10yo entrepreneur Boun (voice of Izaac Wang), toddler con artist Little Noi (voice Thalia Tran), and, of course, the star of the movie, the last dragon, Sisu (voice of Awkwafina).

Tapping into that Disney playbook, there are scenes of tension, moments when things seem sad or dark, and yes, the happy ending. Along the way are a lot of highly entertaining scenes, many of which will have you laughing out loud, and cute animals and babies galore. Our favorite was the weird pill bug creature Tuk Tuk (voice of Alan Tudyk) and Little Noi’s crazy monkey friends. Surprisingly there are also some impressive martial arts clashes when Raya and Namaari battle while, inevitably, arguing about the best path forward for the lands.

raya and the last dragon 2021 - movie still publicity photo
Raya (Tran) and Sisu (Awkwafina), from “Raya and the Last Dragon”

Overall, the animation is gorgeous, lush, and full of interesting details. Mostly inspired by Southeast Asian cultures (think Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, etc), it’s an interesting break from the more common Chinese or Japanese cultures portrayed in other “Asian” stories like Disney’s Mulan. The soundtrack is excellent too, ably composed by long-time Disney collaborator James Newton Howard.

While Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t break any new ground with its storytelling or moral of the need for people to trust each other as a way to heal the world, it’s a good tale for our fractured times. The Druun is a clear metaphor for Covid-19 and when the people of Kumandra cower in fear from the dark, swirling clouds, it’s completely relatable, as we view the film on Disney+ in our homes rather than enjoying it in a packed movie theater. Indeed, a closing credit highlights that the movie was made “from over 400 individual homes” and ends with the completely relatable observation that “dude, you’re still on mute.”

Fortunately, Disney wasn’t at all on mute with this film, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly for the entire family. We all quite enjoyed it and will undoubtedly watch it again. Are there merchandise possibilities suggested? Could Disney produce a ride for one of its hopefully-soon-to-be-reopened amusement parks? Yes and yes. And that’s okay. It’s good fun and another success for a highly creative animation team. Recommended.

A Dad At The Movies Note: I got nothing. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is solid, family-friendly fare that you can watch with kids of all ages. Just don’t be surprised if the little ones immediately want to watch it a second time. And a third.

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