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Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Divergence from the traditional formula is a gutsy move for Disney, one that has not always turned a big profit – past films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet are (sadly) examples of this. But now, we’ve gotten a Disney product lacking musical numbers, devoid of romance, and filled to the brim with adventure, heartbreak, monsters, martial arts, and swordplay. Take the first step and follow me into the magical marvel that is Raya and the Last Dragon

Just a Matter of Trust

Most of your typical Disney films present common but still very important lessons kids can easily grasp: hard work pays off (Princess and the Frog), follow your dreams (Tangled), find the beauty on the inside (Beauty and the Beast), love conquers all (Snow White…and a score of other fairy tales). 

Raya and the Last Dragon, on the other hand, adopt a completely different kind of message: learn to trust people and stop being self-centered. A pretty gutsy lesson, but a very important one. Rather than saying that love or magic can solve a main character’s problems, Disney’s latest film pretty much says, “Buck up. Grow some bones. Change only comes when you stop judging and start trusting. The world isn’t perfect, but you can still survive in it.” 

Not your typical message from the House of Mouse is it? 

In the Face of Danger, We Prevail

If anything, Disney’s newest venture shows that humans are (without a doubt) resilient in the face of danger, particularly the youngsters of the film. Our heroes were forced to watch their families turned to lifeless, petrified corpses by the Druun and had to manage to keep away from these merciless monsters. And, despite all of this, they managed to build lives for themselves and press on through their broken, lifeless world. 

Something I enjoyed about Raya is how the heroes form a makeshift family as they travel across Kumandra’s river. Raya and the dragon Sisu run into each new character completely by accident, but they immediately connect through a mutual desire to bring their families back to life. In the wake of loss, they have found love for each other. 

A Lone Rider and a Luck Dragon

If you think the story about a demonic force tearing through a magical world and a lone rider befriending a furry dragon seems familiar, you would be right. In a wonderful way…in many ways…Raya and the Last Dragon reminds me of The NeverEnding Story. Both Fantasia and Kumandra are chock full of gorgeous Middle Eastern and East Asian landscapes and are populated by bizarre creatures (including fluffy, sparkling dragons). Sisu and Falcor are both beautiful to look at and are absolutely irresistible, while Raya seems to follow a path quite similar to Atreyu the Native American warrior. Even Raya’s gold dragon pendant bears a striking resemblance to the Orin seal, doesn’t it? And the soul-sucking powers of the Druun are nearly identical to the omnipotent darkness of the Nothing. 

So, why do I bother bringing this up? I can easily say that Raya and the Last Dragon is as close to a modern NeverEnding Story as we can get. 

A Land Divided

Now, let’s get to a part of the story I just brought up: Kumandra. This world is, in one word, gorgeous. I love Eastern Asian artwork and culture, and to see it brought to the big screen is a delightful treat to my eyes. And each kingdom reflects these societies and peoples to a tee: Fang (India/Nepal), Heart (Thailand), Spine (Mongolia), Talon (China), Tail (Malaysia). While Mulan scratched the surface of Asian culture, Raya takes it to the next level through its worldbuilding. 

Dreams Brought to Life

Disney always manages to draw us, the ever-hungry audience, into their fictional worlds, but this is the first time I actually felt a sense of reality in a 3D-animated Disney film. Nearly every moment in Raya, I felt like I could reach out and touch the characters. Little details like Raya’s sword, Sisu’s horns, Namaari’s earrings, the Heart palace, Tail’s desert sand, Talon’s sparkling tropical fish, and Spine’s snow-covered bamboo are so realistic and yet so imaginative it makes me giddy. I always will love 2D animation a little better, but I sincerely believe this medium wouldn’t have done Raya and the Last Dragon justice. 

Thanks to 3D animation, the emotions of the characters hit close to home. Two that I will bring up are Chief Benja (Raya’s father, voiced by Daniel Dae Kim) and Tong (a giant warrior from Spine, voiced by Benedict Wong). These two are, without a doubt, the most visually pleasing and beautifully designed characters in the film. The animators use every tool imaginable to make these two look as human as possible and as artistic as possible. When they feel sad or angry or happy, you feel those emotions. 

Nothing New, Something Special 

So, what are my final thoughts about Raya and the Last Dragon? When I first saw the trailer for this film, I was one of its biggest critics. After I watched it, I was happily proven wrong. Not only that, but this beautiful movie is now one of my favorite Disney films of all time. Top 10 easily. 

The music and animation: spectacular. 

The characters: memorable, heartwarming, and believable. 

The story: nothing new but something spectacular at the same time. 

What else can I say but…DISNEY IS BACK!  



IN A NUTSHELL: Beautiful and heartwarming, Raya and the Last Dragon is a brilliant film that is destined to be a Disney classic!