Raya and the Last Dragon – a review

The first part of this review contains no major spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon. The second part does, however, and the end of the spoiler-free section is clearly marked.

Raya and the Last Dragon is an expensive film right now, available only via Disney’s “premiere access” feature on Disney+ for £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States. My review of the film has to be seen through that lens, because it’s not simply a title you can watch as part of your regular Disney+ subscription – though it will surely become available on Disney+ in the coming months. If Raya and the Last Dragon follows the same path as last year’s Mulan, it may be available to stream as part of Disney+ in the summer.

So the big question is this: can I recommend it for £20? Or is Raya and the Last Dragon a title that you’re better off waiting for?

I’m kind of an impatient person! And because Raya and the Last Dragon was one of the titles I was most looking forward to this year, for me it was unquestionably worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon is a great animated film that easily hits the highs of other recent Disney projects. I don’t mind paying a little extra for that under the circumstances – it’s about the price of two or three cinema tickets, so if you consider it from that point of view, it doesn’t seem too bad.

But there’s no getting away from this price discussion, and I want to briefly add my two cents. On the one hand, it can seem unreasonable for Disney to insist on an additional £20 on top of the monthly fee for Disney+. If it were an either/or case it would perhaps sit better with folks, but being asked to either pay £20 on top of your £8 a month, or to have to sign up at £8 on top of the £20 to see Raya and the Last Dragon certainly feels anti-consumer, and I get why folks feel that way.

Raya and the Last Dragon was originally supposed to get a theatrical release.

I’m sick to the back teeth of companies using the pandemic as an excuse for everything, and there’s no denying that Disney could simply have waited and released Raya and the Last Dragon in cinemas either later this year or next year if needs be. That’s the approach taken by Eon and MGM for the upcoming James Bond film No Time To Die, which has been delayed for well over a year. However, despite all of that, I like this method of distribution, and I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a shift away from theatrical releases in favour of streaming.

My health and disability means that I can no longer go to the cinema, so from my selfish perspective I love the idea of bringing more titles straight to streaming platforms, and on an occasional basis for a big release that I’m very keen to see, paying a little extra to watch it is no big deal. As television screens get better (and bigger) the so-called “cinema experience” offers less and less value anyway, and being able to watch a film on one’s own schedule, with the ability to pause, rewind, take breaks, etc. is so much nicer than going to the cinema in many ways. So in my opinion, bringing Raya and the Last Dragon to Disney+ for a fee is acceptable. Would I have preferred it to be included in the price? Of course. But these projects are hugely expensive, and recouping some of that money is going to be necessary for Disney, so I understand why they’ve done it this way. It feels like a compromise – not one that everyone will love, but one I find acceptable.

Young Raya during the film’s opening moments.

Before we get into the main section of the review, here are my spoiler-free thoughts.

I would describe the animation as competent. Nothing blew me away with how amazingly detailed it was – like the snow in Frozen or the oceans in Moana did – but there was nothing wrong with it and it was in line with other modern Disney films from the last decade or so. Considering a significant portion of the work on Raya and the Last Dragon was done remotely, that’s pretty good in my opinion.

The story was surprisingly heavy and emotional for a kids’ film, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. In the first few minutes it was perhaps a little fast-paced for my liking, dropping quite a few characters, locations, and themes all at once. But after that fast beginning it settled in, and followed Raya on her quest at a reasonable pace that wasn’t overwhelming. There were light-hearted and comedic moments, plenty of different environments for Raya and her friends to explore that were all based on different parts of southeast Asia, and the vocal performances were outstanding. Aside from the credits there weren’t any musical numbers, and that was something I wasn’t expecting. The score was great, and had an Asian-inspired theme to it, but after the likes of Moana and Frozen in recent years saw huge success with their songs, I was expecting at least a couple.

So that’s my non-spoiler summary.

This is the end of the spoiler-free section of the review. Expect spoilers from here on out!

Raya and the Last Dragon began with an immediate dump of exposition, explaining the backstory of the broken land of Kumandra – based loosely on southeast Asia. As indicated above, this opening section of the film was quite fast-paced, almost rushed, and introduced characters, themes, magic, locations, and backstory all at once. As I sat through those opening minutes I was hoping that the rest of the film would slow down, and luckily it did after a few minutes. That makes the opening, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film overall.

Raya and the Last Dragon follows the titular Raya as she seeks to save the fractured world of Kumandra, whose people have split up into five competing, squabbling, and warring lands in the aftermath of the disappearance of the dragons. But saving the world is just a side-quest for Raya, whose real objective for much of the film is to save her “ba” – her father, and the chief of her people. Yes, that makes Raya a Disney Princess!

Chief Benja, Raya’s father.

The story takes Raya to all five of the different lands, and each was based on a different area of southeast Asia. We spent just enough time in each land to take in the setting, but I think that taking a few minutes more to really get a feel for each – or perhaps the film including one fewer land – might’ve improved things. This is really the only point of criticism, because each of the lands was unique and richly detailed. At first I wasn’t sold on using English names for these places: Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail, and Talon. However, the metaphor made the ultimate payoff to the film’s story more easily understood, especially for younger viewers. The point of these names was to hammer home, at every opportunity, that the people of Kumandra were artificially divided; that the resolution to their problems would be in learning to trust one another and come together. Like the parts of an animal can’t function independently, neither can the peoples of Kumandra. Each land, represented by a piece of the dragon, brings something that the others lack, and working together is the only way.

This theme carried over into the film’s climactic final battle, as each of the friends Raya had made along the way – each from a different land – stood together and used the last of the dragon gem’s magic to help the people of Fang. This metaphor was certainly omnipresent, but didn’t feel laboured. The film knew, from the very beginning when Chief Benja introduced us to the idea of reunifying the fractured land, that this was the direction of the story. The names of the lands fed into that, as did the way Raya assembled her motley crew from different places.

Raya’s friends work together to help the people of Fang.

At time of writing, there’s a renewed focus on anti-Asian hate and hate crimes in the United States. I’m not an American, but I’d like to offer my perspective on how a film like Raya and the Last Dragon fits at this moment. We often hear criticism of Disney for taking legends and stories and twisting them, “Disney-fying” them to sanitise them for a western audience. And you know what? Raya and the Last Dragon, just like other Disney films based on folklore and legend, is Disney-fied. But there’s incredible value in representation, even in this simplified style, and with Disney’s unique reach that extends across borders, cultures, and ages, Raya and the Last Dragon offers representation to an under-represented group of people in cinema, animation, and the cultural mainstream.

We could devote an entire essay to debunking the argument that “representation and diversity for their own sakes are negative things,” but in the context of this film, coming at this particular moment, let me just say that positive representation is important. It’s important that people of all backgrounds feel included, and being depicted positively in mainstream entertainment – particularly in something as significant as a Disney animated film – is an historic moment. Raya and the Last Dragon draws on the mythology and folklore of southeast Asia in the same way as Moana drew on Polynesian legend, and it’s a net positive for people of Asian heritage to see such representation.

Raya and the Last Dragon presents a positive depiction of Asia and Asian people at an important moment.

Kelly Marie Tran is also uniquely positioned at this moment. Tran suffered horrible racist and sexist abuse online in late 2017 through 2018, and I’m so pleased to see her back in such an inspiring role. Raya and the Last Dragon is a story about bringing people together, learning to trust and overcome hatred, and as someone who has, sadly, experienced hatred firsthand, there’s something even more powerful in knowing who it is bringing Raya to life through an outstanding voice performance.

I don’t like to get “political,” but the release of Raya and the Last Dragon happened to coincide with a significant moment for people of Asian heritage in the United States, and I felt it important to at least acknowledge that.

Kelly Marie Tran voices the character of Raya.
Picture Credit: Jimmy Kimmel Live via YouTube.

In the west, we usually associate dragons with fire. Fire-breathing dragons are both a part of European folklore and have gone on to become a trope in fantasy fiction, so it was very interesting – and more than a little unusual – to see a water dragon as the main focus in a dragon-themed film. This is, of course, a reflection of the film’s Asian-inspired story, as was the design of Sisu herself.

Continuing the theme of breaking with common western depictions of dragons, Sisu is presented in an Asian style – a long body, no wings, and covered in fur. Sisu’s design is a Disney take on that concept, blunting its sharp edges and making it child-friendly. And it worked. I daresay Sisu toys and teddies will become a major part of Disney’s merchandise this year and beyond!

Sisu had a great design, inspired by Asian folklore but with a Disney twist.

The other character with a cute design was Tuk Tuk, and right from the opening moments of the film it was clear he’d been designed to be the cute animal sidekick that so many Disney protagonists have. Tuk Tuk worked best in the film’s prologue, after which he’d grown large and basically served as a form of transportation for Raya and Sisu, though the design remained largely the same.

With Tuk Tuk I think we can point to one of the few examples of Raya and the Last Dragon stumbling, at least somewhat. Aside from having a cute (and merchandisable) design, Tuk Tuk was clearly set up for some light-heartedness; some comic relief. Yet the introduction of Noi (the baby) and her three monkeys largely switches the comic relief focus away from him. It’s not a case of “too many characters,” but rather that the film didn’t really know what to do with two sets of comic relief characters. There was less for Tuk Tuk to do as a result.

Raya and Tuk Tuk near the beginning of the film.

The only other point of criticism I have comes at one of the film’s climactic moments. Raya and her friend-turned-nemesis Namaari are involved in a standoff. Namaari planned to take Sisu and the dragon gem pieces back to Fang on her mother’s orders, and Raya drew her sword to stop her. As Namaari points her crossbow at Sisu, Sisu asks Raya to trust that she knows what she’s doing – but Raya doesn’t, and the result is that Namaari’s crossbow fires, killing Sisu.

This moment was meant to show that Raya is the one who bears most responsibility for Sisu’s death; that if she had trusted Sisu, as Sisu asked her to, Namaari was about to stand down. But it simply wasn’t clear that that was the case, and it would be easy for a casual viewer – or a child, and this is a children’s film, after all – to simply see this moment as Namaari shooting Sisu.

Who was really responsible for pulling the trigger?

For such an important moment, I think it needed to be clearer that Raya is the one to blame. This is her character arc across the film’s final act: learning to trust, and being willing to make the first step to establish trust. If we as the audience see this moment as the culmination of Raya’s failings – an unwillingness to trust either Sisu or Namaari – then the rest of her actions and her arc make sense. If we miss that crucial context and simply see this moment as Namaari the betrayer shooting Sisu, what Raya does later on – giving up her pieces of the dragon gem to signify her willingness to trust – doesn’t make as much sense in context.

Namaari’s words to Raya during their epic final fight also ring hollow when the film is seen in this way. Instead of a heartbroken Namaari laying a harsh truth on Raya, it could be interpreted as another attempt by a liar and trickster to get under Raya’s skin. The moment with the crossbow was set up perfectly, but it was too easy to miss that it was Raya, not Namaari, who was really to blame for what happened, and as the rest of the plot turned on this moment I think that should have been much clearer.

Raya chose to trust Namaari at the film’s climax.

We could also talk about how easy it seems to be to slay a dragon in this film’s lore! It seems like an unimportant point, and perhaps I’m the only one who cares or feels this way, but the way the film treated dragons across the first hour or more made it seem as though they’re magical, almost god-like creatures. The way the film’s human characters worship Sisu – and the other dragons – represents this well. Yet all it took to kill Sisu was a single crossbow shot, and I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t seem to gel. On the one hand we have the film establishing dragons as magical creatures that provided for humans, bringing water and literally giving life to the world, being worshipped and deified centuries after the last of them were wiped out. Yet on the other hand, they’re no different from any other animal and a single crossbow bolt can kill them.

Perhaps this is my western perspective, thinking about dragons not in the context of Asia but in the context of JRR Tolkien and other works of high fantasy. In western dragon lore going all the way back to the legends of Saint George and King Arthur, slaying a dragon is considered an incredibly difficult task worthy of song and celebration. In the world of Raya and the Last Dragon it seems to be something any competent soldier could do. Who knows, maybe that’s why the other dragons went extinct!

Namaari the dragon-slayer!

Raya and the Last Dragon features a cast whose major characters are all female, with male characters in secondary supporting roles. This is something new to Disney, as even past female-led films like Moana, Frozen, or Mulan have included major male characters. The creative choice to have both the main hero and villain both be female actually works really well, and Raya manages to have a closer relationship with Namaari as a result.

Namaari being a redeemable villain – and the film essentially having no overall “big bad” who has to be killed to be stopped – was also a great choice, one that fit perfectly with the theme of overcoming hate and coming together. The whole story of Raya and the Last Dragon was about learning to trust one another, setting aside differences in order to work together for the common good. This theme would have been completely undermined if the final act required Raya to kill Namaari or even her mother, so making both characters redeemable was essential to the story.

Namaari needed to be a redeemable villain for the story to work as intended.

The real villains of the piece were the non-human Druun, depicted as a non-sentient force of nature rather than a character or faction. The design of the Druun managed to strike a balance between being intimidating but not scary and offputting for young children, and I would think that all but the most sensitive children would be able to watch Raya and the Last Dragon without feeling frightened by these crackling clouds of dark purple energy.

More could have been made of the Druun’s relationship with humans. At one point it was suggested by Sisu that the Druun are an embodiment of the arguments and lack of trust between humans, yet this wasn’t really developed further. It’s not clear whether humans directly caused the Druun to appear, whether they came from someplace else to feed on this mistrust and hatred, or what their precise origins are. If the world of 500+ years ago was populated by humans and dragons and was united, with no mistrust and no hatred, how the Druun even arrived in Kumandra is not clear. Perhaps that’s something a future title will explore in more detail, because I think it’s potentially interesting to say that humanity is responsible for giving strength to this powerful foe.

The Druun were the main adversary for Raya and her friends to overcome.

So I think that’s about all I have to say. Raya and the Last Dragon was a thoroughly enjoyable film and a worthy successor to the likes of Frozen and Moana. Disney has been on a roll for almost a decade now, since the release of Frozen in 2013, and the hits keep coming. In the very short term I doubt that Raya and the Last Dragon will catch fire in the way Frozen did, largely because of the cost of accessing it on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature. However, once the film becomes generally available that should change. In a few months’ time, when it arrives for all Disney+ subscribers, it should see a significant boost.

Unlike Frozen and Moana, the choice not to include musical numbers means that there can’t be a breakout song. Let It Go and, to a lesser extent, You’re Welcome and Shiny went on to not only define the films in which they featured, but arguably bring in more viewers. By “going viral” in a sense, the songs drew more attention to their respective films, and this is something Raya and the Last Dragon won’t have.

The main characters at the end of the film.

I had a great time with Raya and the Last Dragon. I can’t tell you whether you’ll get £20 or $30 worth of entertainment and enjoyment from the film, because such things depend on your budget and your perception of value. But this time, as a one-off and as something I won’t repeat for the rest of the year, I didn’t mind spending the extra money. I didn’t spend money on last year’s Mulan remake, and having seen the film subsequently I think that was the right call. But this time, for the latest Disney animated film, I think it was worth it. Raya and the Last Dragon was funny, emotional, and clever, and told a story about people coming together that is timeless. Its Asian roots shone through, and though some will surely argue that it was a dumbed-down version of Asian traditions, that’s Disney’s trademark style.

If you enjoyed previous Disney animated films, especially recent ones, I daresay you’ll have a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream now on Disney+ via the “premiere access” feature for an additional fee. Raya and the Last Dragon is the copyright of Disney Animation Studios and the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.