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Film review: “Raya and the Last Dragon” delivers a timely tale

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“Raya and the Last Dragon” premiered March 5 in theaters and on Disney+. (USA TODAY)

The latest addition to Disney’s animated film collection has arrived and tells an exciting, heart-warming story with a message that felt almost too relevant to today’s world. 

This review will contain a few spoilers, so if you do not want any of the fun ruined, this is your warning. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is set in the fictional land of Kumandra, where thousands of years prior, the people of the land lived in harmony with mystical dragons. When a villainous force known as the Druun rises to turn everyone it touches to stone, the dragons banded together to create a gem Sisu, the last dragon (voiced by Awkwafina), to vanquish the enemy. 

The people broke away into their own corners of the world and lived divided. In a peace-offering gone wrong, the gem shatters and the Druun returns to wreak havoc. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) must rise up to save the fractured world. 

The theme of trust, or rather lack thereof, is apparent throughout the film on both a large and small scale. Raya struggles at many points to trust those she encounters. Her father Benja attempts at every chance to teach her the lesson of trust and cooperation. Raya even uses those teachings when trying to befriend a fellow princess named Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan). Namaari betrays her, setting off a bitter rivalry that carries on through the film.

On a larger scale, Raya’s father Benja (voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) longs to embrace the other kingdoms and their differences in order to unite them as one. Each group is unable to trust each other at the beginning, and they let their greed get the better of them.

I could not help but see more than a few real-world parallels here. The writing team conveys the message effortlessly through good story beats and character moments. Hats off to them. 

Tran leads the charge of the predominantly Asian cast as the titular Raya. She is fierce but holds an endearing quality. After suffering a tragic betrayal as a kid, Raya has an edge to her, and understandably so. Paired with Awkwafina’s ever-optimistic Sisu, the two form a bond that brings the laughs and emotional weight the film needs. 

The film rounds up a fun cast of supporting characters to join the adventure. From the young, smooth-talking boat captain Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang) to the “rough and tough” warrior Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong) to even a con artist baby and her trio of mischievous monkeys, Raya encounters a variety of colorful misfits front he kingdoms she visits. At first, she is apprehensive about trusting them, but over the course of the film she learns (with a little help from Sisu) to accept their differences to form a “found family.” They bond over their shared trauma of the Druun with some great emotional moments that had me misty-eyed on a few occasions.

The dynamic that piqued my interest the most was of Raya and Namaari. There is a lot of tension between the two after what happened in their youth. The fighting banter these two share is electric and fun, while the moments they have apart from one another show the baggage that came with Namaari’s betrayal. Though Namaari is really the antagonist, the audience can empathize with where she is coming from. They feel like well-rounded characters whose arcs play well into the overall theme of trust.

While the film did not contain the usual Disney musical number, it packed itself full of exciting action. The fight choreography was engaging and never missed a beat. 

The land of Kumandra is vibrant and stunning. Inspired by Southeast Asian countries, the filmmakers brought in details from many different cultures to form a unique world. The creativity mixed with beautiful animation and colors that pop when on-screen differentiates Kumandra from other Disney settings.

In case you haven’t noticed, I had a lot of fun with “Raya and the Last Dragon.” The film sits in Disney+’s premiere access category at a pricey $29.99, but once you buy it, you have it forever (or as long as you have a Disney+ account). If you have kids to keep busy or just want a movie with a good message, then the price is well worth it. 

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