‘Raya And The Last Dragon’ Review: Gorgeous And Epic, And A Lot Of Fun

Disney has a long and storied history of animated classics, dating back almost 90 years. In that time, the animated industry has evolved to the point that computers now do most of the heavy lifting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the artistic beauty of these stories. In the new animated film, Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney’s talented artists have crafted one of, if not the best looking animated film in their history. And if you think that is overstating the film, just wait until you see it.

Raya and the Last Dragon is the story of the mythical land of Kumandra, a world where humans and dragons lived together in peace. Half a century ago, a plague of monsters called the Druun attacked and turned people and dragons alike to stone. The remaining dragons banded together to combine their unique powers to create the dragon crystal to banish the Druun, but in so doing, they wiped themselves out.

Raya and her Ba in Raya and the Last Dragon

Now, 500 years later, the remaining city states of the world are at odds for control of the Dragon Crystal and young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is named a guardian of the crystal. Her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), brings the tribes together to try and negotiate peace and after a betrayal, the crystal is shattered into five pieces, which removes the spell over the land and the Druun come back in force. Each tribe takes a shard of the crystal and flees, and Raya is forced to try and bring the shards back together to banish the Druun once and for all. She is able to resurrect Sisu, the last dragon (Awkwafina), and the two set off on a grand adventure.

Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t based on a pre-existing story, fable, or fairy tale, but it is heavily steeped in eastern and southeastern Asian ideas. And the casting reflects that. While the story has some trope-like callbacks to Disney classics of the past, the technical achievements of the animation separate this from all that has come before. This is one stunningly gorgeous production.

Sisu, the last dragon, is based on the Chinese dragon model, with fur and hair, and each strand is independently animated. World effects, like the heavy fog over a swamp, or the smoke and flames from raging fires just dance across the screen with a level of realism seldom seen outside of a big budget video game.

In fact, much of Raya and the Last Dragon feels like watching a video game. From the Zelda-like quest to collect the shards and fight bosses, to the stunning visuals of the various locations around this world, how Disney hasn’t tapped a tie-in game is beyond me.

Raya and Namaari face off in Raya and the Last Dragon

The voice acting matches the artistry onscreen, and the action just feels big at all times. The character design for Raya invokes the classic Ronin style, and when she gets into a fight, you just know it is going to be a knock-down, drag out brawl. The supporting cast, which includes a wily 10-year-old cook, a con baby, and the hulking Tong (Benedict Wong), add just enough humor and levity to keep the story moving without dipping too much into dark melodrama.

Everything about Raya and the Last Dragon feels epic, and while the script has some familiar beats, the entire production is elevated to a new level by everything else. Pixar has arguably been the driving studio for Disney animation for the last few decades, but Walt Disney Studios can still bring it when the right story comes along. Much like Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon is one of those films that are instant classics, and for a studio that kind of started it all, that says it all.

Raya and the Last Dragon is rated PG and is in theaters and on Disney Plus Premiere (with additional fee) starting this weekend.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens this weekend in theaters and on Disney Plus Premiere
out of 5

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