Even by modern Walt Disney Animation standards, the production of its latest feature Raya and the Last Dragon was, er, rocky. And that was before the coronavirus forced animators to finish the movie from home. But the movie, which carries some serious expectations (mostly stemming from the fact that it is centered around the studio’s first Southeast Asian princess), somehow manages the impossible – by the end of the movie’s robust 114-minute runtime, you’ll be convinced that Raya and the Last Dragon is a new Disney classic. Witty, muscular, and with a singular, sparky spirit, the movie is a total artistic triumph and a new animated favorite.
To explain: Raya and the Last Dragon was announced back at the D23 Expo in 2019. Under the direction of longtime Disney story artists Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins (who nearly made a cool space race movie years earlier), the film would star Cassie Steele as Raya, a lone warrior who teams up with a shapeshifting water dragon named Sisu (played by Awkwafina). The actors and filmmakers appeared on stage together, beaming and hopeful about their upcoming animated action movie. And then … everything changed. Weeks later Briggs and Wellins were removed (Briggs stuck around in a reduced capacity as a co-director) and the role of Raya was recast with Kelly Marie Tran from The Last Jedi. Don Hall, a Disney workhorse who had directed the underrated 2011 Winnie the Pooh feature and Big Hero 6 (he also helped nudge Moana across the finish line as a co-director), was installed as a new director, alongside independent live-action filmmaker Carlos López Estrada, who had come to the studio to develop an original, unrelated project but was handed the Raya assignment (his other movie is still in development). Additional writers (playwright Qui Nguyen joined already announced Adele Lim) and producers (Peter Del Vecho worked alongside Osnat Shurer) were brought on as well. And this was before the pandemic forced everybody apart, working independently to get the film completed on time. (It’ll debut on Disney+, via Premiere Access, as well as in theaters.)
And out of that kind of creative disarray and technological limitation, a genuine masterpiece was born. Raya and the Last Dragon is a lot of things – spiritual, funny, astoundingly gorgeous – but the way that it laces modern themes (about the importance of communication and the essential nature of togetherness) through a classic, martial arts/buddy comedy framework, feels new and unexpected. All without a single musical number.
Raya and the Last Dragon starts in the scorched earth of Kumandra, a fictionalized Southeast Asian country shaped like a spindly water dragon. Each area is named after a part of the dragon (Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon) and each area has a specific type of inhabitant. But they all once flourished, together. That is until a sinister force called the Druun (the latest in a long line of shapeless, ethereal Disney baddies) turns townspeople into stone and survivors against one another. As Raya was growing up, she heard stories about this epic battle between the water dragons and the Druun, and how all but one was killed. And it was up to her people, in Heart, to protect a mystical gem that keeps the evil marauders at bay. But after Raya makes a mistake (she trusts her friend, Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan), the gem is divided, with each land given a different chunk. The Druun are back, and it’s up to Raya to stop them.
Of course, to do this, Raya must traverse the post-apocalyptic landscape, search for the last surviving dragon, Sisu, and reunite the shards of the shattered gem. By any means necessary. As it turns out, though, Sisu isn’t some all-powerful deity; like Maui in Moana she doesn’t have much mojo left. It was her brothers and sisters, the fallen dragons, who did most of the work when it came to saving humanity. Sisu, she insists, was just there. Still, together they set out on a quest to collect the fragments of the gem and set things right. And along the way, they come across various members of the other sections of Kumandra. Part of the fun of Raya and the Last Dragon is the unexpected ways these characters come together; just know that you are going to encounter some of your favorite new Disney characters along the way. And while some may seemingly only be there for comedic emphasis, there’s a sense of loss the characters share that is deep and profound, especially when looking at the movie through the lens of 2021, with half-a-million souls gone in America alone.
Tonally, it’s easy to compare Raya and the Last Dragon to something like Hercules, which has a similar ancient setting but its own vernacular (one of my favorite Raya-isms is, “What’s dripping?”) and modern references and touchstones. (There’s also some similar, in tone and structure, to the aforementioned Moana.) But what Raya is really about – putting aside our differences or cultural peculiarities aside to exist as a single, unified people – feels much more urgently now. Not only can you draw parallels between the divisive political season and the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, but you can make the comparison between our world and Kumanda, as we band together to vanquish an evil, unstoppable treat that leaves parents childless and children parentless.
Not that Raya and the Last Dragon is preachy or a drag. Far from it. The movie rockets along, from location to location, introducing new characters and creatures along the way. Sisu, with her shapeshifting ability and knack for running along raindrops, is one of the greatest new characters Disney has introduced in recent memory. Awkwafina has the comic timing and boundless energy of Robin Williams in Aladdin, and her performance feels like a direct descendant to that timeless role. (Also, her design, by Cory Loftis, is unimpeachable. He was one of two credited production designers that sadly left the company before production on Raya and the Last Dragon was complete.) The action sequences are brutal and excellently choreographed. And the score by James Newton Howard, his first for Walt Disney Animation Studios since replacing Alan Silvestri on Treasure Planet, is muscular and melodic.
Could you wait until Raya and the Last Dragon arrives on Disney+, free of charge, and while you still wait for a vaccine, in June? Sure. But spending $30 to have this astounding piece of work until then seems wise. It’s one you’ll likely revisit over the next few months, over and over again, it’s really that good.