Centuries after the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity in a war, Raya sets out to unite the human tribes of Kumandra once again and stop an old threat, with the help of the last dragon Sisu.
It’s easy to wonder why Disney would waste time with an easy cash-grab sequel like Frozen 2 when tasked with original films, they knock it out of the park. Raya and the Last Dragon proves so with stunning images and settings, and an engrossing adventure that, although I wish I had seen in theaters (which wasn’t possible due to the film not having a wide release, although it is available on Disney+), makes a story that would otherwise be familiar feel inviting and visually memorable. For those seeing it on the big screen, it’ll be surely unforgettable. The mythical settings and journeys to different corners of Kumandra make this feel like a more epic journey than any of Disney’s live-action films, and the skies, buildings, lights, and natural world that the characters interact with make this another achievement when it comes to animation, and its no less than another such adventure film on Disney’s resume, Moana. Kelly Marie Tran brings a complex voice character who displays optimism, empathy, bravery, rage, and determination in many stages of the film, bringing a flawed hero but one that fits perfectly into Disney’s roster of strong animated heroes. Awkwafina is a joy as Sisu and brings much needed comedic relief and enjoyment to an already great movie. Ever since her amazing performance in The Farewell, the actress/comedian has proven to be a treasure in Hollywood. She was such an inspired and wholesome choice to voice the charismatic dragon who, although 500 years old, has a youthful energy to her as she is figuring out how to be a hero as much as Raya. Benedict Wong is also excellent as a supporting hero. While there are no one-sided villains, Gemma Chan certainly plays a standout character, and Sandra Oh and Daniel Dae Kim are great too as the parents of Chan and Tran’s characters, respectively.
The chemistry between Tran and Awkwafina’s characters, the breathtaking animation, and the large scale are the binding elements of what make this movie another instant classic. The imaginative worlds and challenges the leads face through new settings, as well as the colorful and lively action sequences, felt as exciting to me as it would to child audiences. While the film’s emotional core and themes aren’t as moving as Soul‘s, which I think had some of the strongest messages in animation lately, the movie does have touching messages that will definitely work especially for younger audiences, and serve the story well enough, about choosing trust and empathy over greed and fighting. It’s only unfortunate that Disney didn’t wait for everyone to experience this film theatrically, as it’s one of their most visually imaginative films in years. But that’s another story. Whether you do seek it out in a theater near you or stream it on Disney+, watch it with your family and loved ones.