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Film Review: “Raya and the Last Dragon” Breathes Cinematic Fire

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 4th, 2021

Film poster: “Raya and the Last Dragon”

Raya and the Last Dragon (Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada/Paul Briggs and John Ripa, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.

A beautifully animated ride through an engaging dystopian landscape, Raya and the Last Dragon offers the best kind of fantasy world-building, filled with innovative touches and fully realized characters. Voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi) and Awkwafina (The Farewell), the titular leads prove a winning duo, complemented by a strong supporting ensemble, comprised of an almost entirely Asian cast. Though there is, at times, an excessive amount of exposition, this Disney movie delivers stunning visuals and a rich narrative, guaranteeing unforgettable entertainment for all.

We start in this universe’s present, as the young-adult Raya (Tran) rides through a desiccated wasteland, her vehicle, as it will turn out, something quite special. Her voiceover pokes fun at the very notion of yet another post-apocalyptic tale, before attempting to explain how we got here, taking us back first to 500 years ago, then just 6 years prior. The setup goes something like this: way back when, the Earth’s population lived (mostly) in harmony with itself and with dragons, but there emerged vicious blob-like creatures known as the Druun, who turned those whose paths they crossed into stone. The dragons, magical as they were, gathered together and developed a spell to defeat the Druun, which they did at their own expense, all but one of them turning to stone, themselves. The last one, Sisu, vanished.

l-r: Sisu (Awkwafina) and Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Flash-forward to the more recent past, and tween Raya, living in the land of Heart (all human clans now live in areas named after dragon parts), trains with her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, Linsanity) to become a guardian of a special gem that is the only remaining source of magic in the world. When Benja invites all the rival clans, at each other’s throats since the dragons’ disappearance, for a peaceful conference, everything is fine until Raya inadvertently gives up the location of the gem for all to discover, misreading the overtures of another leader’s daughter, Namaari (Gemma Chan, Let Them All Talk) as an offer of friendship. Disaster ensues. Cut back to the opening, and the now seasoned warrior that Raya has become scours the globe looking for not only the missing gem pieces, but the lost dragon, Sisu, as well.

And so the adventure truly begins, with the highest of stakes at hand. Once Raya, as the title promises, finds Sisu, the two make their way from predicament to predicament, gathering friend and foe, alike. Raya’s childhood companion is Tuk Tuk, an armadillo-like animal who doubles as a convenient rolling wheel. This is standard fare for a Disney film, but much of the rest goes beyond the usual. There are battles fought, rivalries explored, tragedy and joy in constant duet, and excellent jokes, too. With a sharp focus on powerful women struggling for supremacy, Raya and the Last Dragon wears its feminist mission proudly, though without any forced polemics. It’s all in the writing, and the writing (except for the overabundant exposition) is good. Tack on some superlative design, and we have a winner.

l-r: Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and Namaari (Gemma Chan) in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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