Over a decade ago, Walt Disney Animation Studios decided to make a change. Struggling to match the pace of its partner studio, Pixar, in the ever-evolving world of animation, the studio known for its traditional cartoons made a giant leap forward – in both design and message.
The emphasis on empowerment, representation and social commentary that started with “Tangled” has permeated every film since, and at the center of nearly all of these has been a strong female lead. The studio’s latest venture, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” is no exception.
Anchored by a kick-ass Kelly Marie Tran, “Raya” once again pushes the princesses to the back burner in exchange for fierce, independent women set on adventure. From Elsa to Moana and beyond, the recipe has proven successful, so why stop now?
While the aforementioned adventure may be a bit lacking in originality, the journey itself is still plenty of fun thanks to the beautiful animation and pitch-perfect voice cast “Raya” has to offer.
For too long, the mystical and once-harmonious land of Kumandra has been divided. Not since the last of the legendary dragons vanished have the people truly been united, instead splitting themselves into five quarreling tribes. But Chief Benga of the Heart Tribe (Daniel Dae Kim) and his warrior daughter Raya (Tran) plan to change that.
Benga invites all of the other tribes into the Heart kingdom in hopes of creating a more unified nation, but things go wrong when Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang Tribe’s leader takes advantage of Raya’s trusting nature. During the betrayal, the legendary orb that harnesses the ancient magic of the dragons is shattered, reawakening the evil spirits of the Druun – soul-eating monsters that turn everything in their wake to stone. The Druun wreak havoc across the kingdom, and only those with remnants of the magical orb are truly protected.
Flash forward six years and Kumandra is still in disarray as the Druun have destroyed entire populations. After watching her father turn to stone before her own eyes, Raya has taken it upon herself to locate the five shards of the orb in one final effort to unite the nation and save her people.
As complex as “Raya’s” story may sound based on that description – warring tribes, evil spirits, magic stones, and don’t forget the dragons – it’s really quite basic when boiled down: a hero accompanied by a ragtag group of companions in search of MacGuffins to help save the world. From the Infinity Stones of “Avengers” fame to the Sith wayfinders in “The Rise of Skywalker” and the Heart of Te Fiti in “Moana,” the House of Mouse loves a good quest for a rock. While its story may be played out, that doesn’t make it any less entertaining this time around – and mainly due to the film’s stellar voice cast and beautiful animation.
Tran as captivating as Raya, delivering the perfect blend of pure hearted heroine and badass warrior, while Awkwafina nails her role as the film’s moral compass. Whether she’s in dragon or human form, Sisu constantly demonstrates the power of the film’s core value: trust. While Raya may have been burned by being too trusting in the past, Sisu knows the only way to truly vanquish the Druun is through trust.
Where “Raya” will make its greatest impact – far beyond any revolutionary plot devices or animation – is in its incredible achievement of representation. Written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, and voiced by a nearly entirely Asian American cast, “Raya” marks a huge step forward for the Southeast Asian community onscreen. From Easter eggs like the name of Raya’s trusty mode of transportation, Tuk Tuk, the motor bike-powered carriages of Southeast Asia, to the intricate martial arts and choreography, the film is overflowing with authenticity and passion – enough to finally make this often underrepresented group feel seen.
It may not bring anything new to the table narratively, but that’s not always what’s most important for a film. Sometimes it’s best to go with the tried and true formula, but let someone else be the star for once, and that’s exactly what “Raya and the Last Dragon” does.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.