REVIEW: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is a classic example of Disney’s formula

Rich with Southeast Asian representation, “Raya and the Last Dragon,” journeys to find the last dragon and save the world.

“Raya and the Last Dragon,” directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, is a new Disney fantasy and action film that draws from Southeast Asian cultures. It is a feel-good movie that, although follows many of the common Disney movie tropes, is ultimately an entertaining film worth rewatching.

Five hundred years ago, the land of Kumandra lived unitedly and prosperously with the dragons. However, after an attack by the Druun — evil spirits that turn living creatures to stone upon touch — all but one dragon sacrificed themselves and their magic, creating a magical orb to fend off the Druun. Sisu (Awkwafina), the last remaining dragon, was rumored to have disappeared.

Due to the people’s greed for the orb’s magic, they fought and Kumandra was broken up into five tribes named after the different parts of a dragon: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine and Talon.

After an attack by the enemy tribes, Princess of the Heart tribe Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) failed to save the magical dragon orb that has been in their tribe’s possession. During the tussle, the orb broke into five pieces and elicited the return of the Druun, who turned much of the people from all different tribes into stone, including Raya’s father. Six years later, Raya finds Sisu and embarks on a quest to retrieve the broken pieces of the dragon orb and bring back all those who were turned to stone.

If the plot sounds familiar, that’s because it probably is.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is a tried and true Disney film with a pretty formulaic plot and story structure. Raya is a strong and clever protagonist who is, naturally, accompanied by an animal sidekick named Tuk Tuk, an adorable, armadillo-like creature. In classic Disney fashion, Raya loses someone important to her, causing her to embark on a crazy journey to bring them back. Along the way, she meets comic relief characters, gets into fights with enemies and ultimately gets into a climatic battle where the bad guy turns good, and inspirational music plays while Kumandra gets restored.

Audiences are made aware of Raya’s motivations, however at times it was difficult to completely resonate with her character. As the protagonist, she was tasked with telling a lot of the backstory, which left very little room for her own character’s development. Out of all the characters, Raya may have been the most underdeveloped. She also follows the classic formula of a typical Disney protagonist: has a good heart, skilled but a little … boring?

Raya certainly was not one of the most complex characters, unlike Namaari (Gemma Chan) who certainly deserves that title much more as the film depicts her internal struggle in choosing between what she thought was right versus what her mother told her was for the good of their people. Even Noi (Thalia Tran), the orphaned baby who turned to a life of thievery as a result, that Raya meets on the way had more character. The audience does not witness much of Raya’s character development until near the end of the movie, when her inability to trust others almost causes her to lose everything, and she finally grows from her mistakes.

With a weak protagonist, at times it was difficult to connect to the story. However, Awkwafina’s incredible voice acting and Sisu the dragon’s character made up for what Raya lacked. Sisu may be one of the highlights of the movie. The character is beautifully designed with ombres of blue and purple, and has a decently complex character with a great sense of humor.

While Raya is often a little dry, Sisu is constantly lively and engaging. In addition to her humorous side, Sisu also displays real emotional depth, as she also lost everyone to the Druuns. The balance between Sisu’s personality aspects made her a character that audiences could connect to and grow to love. Awkwafina’s personality and spunk added real dimension to her character as well.

The action sequences of the film were another highlight and incredibly well-done. They were well-paced and gave an opportunity to show off the strong women warriors, as well as add emotional impact for much of the character’s motivations became clear through the fight sequences. The animation and design of the characters’ weapons were also impressive, with the most notable one being Raya’s sword that can swing out and retract like a dragon’s tail.

Although the beginning of the movie moved at a bit of a fast pace, around the middle to end of the film it slows down and highlights some impactful scenes. There is a good balance between funny moments, serious moments and magical moments, adding depth to the overall story. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” gives some much needed Southeast Asian representation in entertainment media. The set, costume designs and Kumandran language all contain many odes to their Southeast Asian ties. The characters are also designed in a way that makes them appear Asian without relying on stereotypical traits. However, the film fell short in providing behind-the-scenes representation as many of the cast were of East Asian descent rather than Southeast Asian.

Although the story was nothing revolutionary, it was an enjoyable and feel-good movie that you probably wouldn’t watch a second time. It was easy to follow and the animation was stunning, with great attention to detail when animating particularly hard elements, such as water streams and mounds of sand. The set and costume design were also impressively colorful. Although the movie clearly followed the classic Disney formula, it is certainly not a bad formula. And it definitely helps that Raya’s animal sidekick Tuk Tuk is so darn cute.