Since roughly around the release of Mulan (1998), Walt Disney Animation Studios has amped up what it means to be a Disney princess. Fairytales and the fantastical are welcome, but these princesses have become heroic, thrill seeking-adventures. And these character traits add a whole new dimension to the classic Disney stories we’ve come to love.
That’s exactly where Raya and the Last Dragon fits in. Over the last few years, we’ve had some Disney movies that are still crossovers of the old and new school, such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and even Frozen. But, much like Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon goes all-in on the brave princess warrior trope. Not all princess movies have to be a romance, and this genre-breaking movie is a fresh entry in the Disney Princess category.
The background of this movie is an important one. It’s the first Disney animated movie to take place in a Southeast Asian setting, bringing with it many influences from the cultures of that region. And yet again, it makes this movie refreshing for many reasons. For one, it’s awesome to see this commitment to diversity — plus, the movie features a predominantly Asian cast. And not only that, but it’s simply refreshing to see new themes, locations, clothing, and all sorts of customs included in this movie. Yes, the typical idea of fairytales (at least in the West) is the Brothers Grimm aesthetic with influences from Europe. But magic can be found anywhere, and that’s what Raya and the Last Dragon brings to the table.
The plot of the movie, of course, is what really brings the magic. We follow princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who now finds herself as a lone adventurer in a desolate, ancient land named Kumandra. But it wasn’t always that way — both humans and dragons once lived in harmony during the land’s better days. The exposition is quite dense in the beginning as the narrative is set up. But essentially, there are five different lands that once lived in peace. After a bit of a repeat disaster, the lands found themselves at odds again after a monstrous roaming plague called the Druun was released.
The only thing that would help defeat the Druun would be a magic dragon stone and the help of the last dragon herself. But with that dragon stone destroyed into pieces, it’s up to Raya to trek across the land to find both the pieces of the stone and the last dragon, so peace can be restored once again.
Tran (of Star Wars fame) puts her best foot forward as Raya and brings to the role all the charm that a typical Disney character would bring. It makes me yearn to see her in more projects, especially considering she does just as great a job as a voice actress as she does with on-screen acting. The second show-stealer is Awkwafina, who plays the loveable oaf of the movie, Sisu the dragon. The act is reminiscent of your Dorys and Olafs and Maters. But at the same time, there’s still a warmth to this character that makes every interaction meaningful, and she even has some serious moments filled with nothing but heart.
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The cast is also packed with the likes of Daniel Dae Kim, who plays her father, Benja, and Alan Tudyk (another Star Wars alum), who voices the sounds of Raya’s companion Tuk Tuk.
Along the way, they meet friends voiced by actors like the young Izaac Wang and Benedict Wong, who make the movie all the more interesting as the story goes on.
And lastly, I have to give it up to Gemma Chan and Sandra Oh who play the mother-daughter-duo Virana and princess Namaari, who are constantly giving Raya and crew a run for their money. Raya and Namaari have some awesome sparring scenes in this movie, and it really does break the mold of the animated movies of Disney’s past.
Overall, there’s so much magic in this movie. If there are any downsides, the film does take some time to pick up. And I was almost skeptical about where the movie was heading for perhaps the first 15 to 20 minutes. But it does, indeed, pick up. There are small things about the plot as well that sometimes have you asking “Why would they do this instead of that?” But those are usually minor plot things that don’t necessarily break the illusion too much.
After watching this movie, you’ll likely come away with the warm-fuzzies. Directors Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada and co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa do an excellent job of that. And scriptwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim do just the same. The message they preach in this movie will maybe even inspire you and the entire family to be a better person. That message (which will become apparent as you watch), is one we could all learn in this day and age — and sometimes it takes a Disney princess to help us realize that!
Raya and the Last Dragon heads to Disney+ with Premier Access, as well as some theaters, beginning March 5.