“Raya and the Last Dragon”
BY MATTHEW HOANG STAFF WRITER
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is Disney’s first big, animated release of the year. It tells the story of Raya, a princess from the land of Kumandra, a nation that was divided into five tribes after a war with evil spirits called the Druun. Kumandra once hosted dragons but they sacrificed their lives to save humanity from the Druun.
The film takes place 500 years after the dragons’ sacrifice. The Druun have returned, and Raya must go on a quest to restore a destroyed artifact that can vanquish them once and for all.
If this story feels derivative, that’s probably because it is. Perhaps not intentionally, the film borrows much from “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” including the Asian-centric cast and setting. Even the basic structure of the plot is very similar to Avatar’s world-wide quest to end a war.
Raya is joined by several allies in her quest, and while all of them are distinct and have special skills, none of them are notable or go through any significant character arc — save for Awkwafina’s Sisu, the last living dragon. Even Sisu’s primary role is as comic relief. Although she does offer Raya some life advice, it seems that Disney just wanted Awkwafina to shine in her role as a comedian.
This rushed character development also extends to the film’s main antagonist, Namaari, another warrior princess from a rival tribe who betrayed Raya as a child. This is an important part of the film, displaying Raya’s trust issues and her need to learn to trust others again.
What doesn’t make sense about this, however, is that while Raya and Namaari talk a lot about being old friends, the two only appear to have met once as children. They fight several times during the film and reconcile just as quickly, hinting at an entire history between the characters that the film just glosses over.
This overall lack of character development can be attributed to the rushed plot pace. The whole movie just follows along as Raya goes from one pretty location to the next, before arriving suddenly at the end and leaving the audience shocked that they’ve already arrived at the third act.
The one bright spot of the film is the stunning animation; the characters look extremely realistic and the fight scenes are visually stunning. I was most impressed with the detail in Raya’s hair — it was the most realistic hair I’ve ever seen in animation. The voice acting is also superb, particularly in the way Kelly Marie Tran brings out a lot of emotion in Raya.
In all, “Raya and the Last Dragon” should be commended for its dedication to diversity and cool animation, but the lackluster plot leaves much to be desired.