RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (hereafter simply referred to as RAYA) is directed by Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada. The voice cast includes Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, and Alan Tudyk.
500 years ago, evil spirits and dragons clashed, with the dragons sacrificing themselves to save humanity. In the centuries that follow, the once-united tribes of the world are at war again, with the world split into five tribes. Raya (pronounced RYE-ah) is the daughter of a chief who has trained her and tasked her with protecting the orb left behind by the dragons, while also wanting to reunite the tribes into a unified nation once again. But when attempts at peace fail and greed reigns supreme, Raya must put herself on a journey to recover the missing pieces of the orb, aided by one of the dragons she was able to revive, as well as an eccentric cast of characters who join the journey for their own respective reasons. But is there any chance of the tribes ever reuniting, or will their greed and selfishness continue to stand in the way?
RAYA is the second film to go to direct to Disney+'s Premium Access service (essentially requiring subscribers to pay a $30 fee for access to the film on top of normal subscription fees, though it will be made available for viewing for no additional charge eventually); last year's live action remake of MULAN was the first movie to get this treatment. The film isn't the most original thing in the Disney canon (its ending is far too convenient, for example), but its eccentric and lovable cast of characters, voiced largely by an Asian-American cast, coupled with the impressive scenery and animation, are sure to win over audiences of all ages.
Where RAYA shines brightest is its cast of characters, and the who's who of mostly Asian-American entertainers who voice them. Raya herself is a great protagonist, voiced brilliantly by Kelly Marie Tran, a girl shaken by her past who, despite her spunk and rough exterior, clearly has trust issues and is hesitant to open up to anyone. But of course the real stand-out member of the cast is Awkwafina, who voices Sisu, the titular last dragon revived by Raya, who serves as both the film's comic relief and a major driving plot element. She the highlight of the film, and definitely brings the majority of the laughs the film has to offer. And things don't stop there. The cast includes fearsome warriors, looks-can-be-deceiving characters, and even memorable three-dimensional villains who aren't the black-and-white "bad guy" types. Disney rarely fails to please when it comes to casing an animated movie, and this one is no exception.
The environments and animation are equally impressive to all who watch the film. A mythical Asian-style land with no shortage of diverse peoples and exotic creatures and locales; it's a setting that'll keep your eyes glued to the screen. If RAYA has any weaknesses, world-building certainly isn't one of them. The animators and writers manage to create a world that feels believable and lived in despite the more exotic and fantastical elements at hand.
The commentary the film has to offer is just as relevant to a modern society as it is the mythical one of the past the movie presents us with. There are valuable lessons about the dangers of greed and the importance of coming together, and these lessons aren't rushed or secondary thoughts. Throughout the journey, we see how these characters have been impacted, as well as what it takes for them to move forward, hopefully towards a better society and the like with improved relationships and unity. Even many of the "hero" characters begin as enemies of sorts, and must work to win the trust of one another. It's great to see that this cinematic experience not only looks beautiful; it's got a heart underneath.
Those things said, the movie isn't quite perfect. At times it struggles to juggle a huge cast; everyone's great in this film, from the way they're animated to the quality of the voice acting, but it's a gigantic cast that's at times a bit too much. The writers could have given us half as many characters, and still created just as strong a film. Likewise, in true Disney fashion, the ending is far too convenient and "happily ever after," undermining much of the struggle our heroes face throughout the adventure (though I won't go into spoilers here). Part of the reason Pixar films are generally stronger than those of Disney's studios (like RAYA here) is that the Pixar films are less afraid to show losses and sacrifices and make them stick, often as major plot points. RAYA
unfortunately tries too hard to aim for the "happy ending," and it does feel like a cheat, not to mention it likely negates the possibilities of potential sequels; this is a world I wouldn't have minded revisiting at least once.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON has its flaws, but they're largely conquered by a brilliant ethnic cast, gorgeous animation, and plenty of characters sure to attract the attention of young and old alike. It's not perfect, but it easily scores three out of four stars with this moviegoer. Is the movie worth the $30 Disney+ Premium Access fee? That's going to depend on the viewer, especially considering you can wait a few months and just view it normally on the service when the time comes. That said, I don't think anyone who views the film is going to have too many complaints with it; the end results satisfy and then some.