“Raya and the Last Dragon” serves up standard Disney fare with flair

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Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

To many, our world seems like a place that was once filled with magic and life but has long since forgotten such things in favor of a drier, more egocentric way of life. This thought inspires many wistful works of art, longingly looking towards a past we imperfectly remember. 

Such thoughts are often the focus of Disney’s best works, and this certainly remains true for its most recent project: “Raya and the Last Dragon.” 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” follows the story of a far-off, mystical land called “Kumandra,” where magical dragons and humans once lived together in harmony and bliss. However, once evil in the form of the monstrous Druun invades Kumandra, the dragons decide to sacrifice themselves to save their human companions. 

Now living in a world without dragons, without magic and without beauty, humans grow distrustful of each other and seize the few remnants of dragon magic for themselves. What was once a unified nation fractures into five separate, warring tribes.

Five hundred years pass in this shattered Kumandra until the scourge of the Druun again threatens all life. 

While all the tribes fight with each other instead of uniting in order to fight the Druun, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) seeks a different path. Raya is one of the only people left who believes that, somewhere, there is still one dragon left who might have the solution to her people’s plight and might make these insecure tribes trust each other once again. 

Raya sets out on a harrowing quest to find the last dragon and seeks to make whole again that which was shattered. She ends up discovering that only a true leap of faith can restore what Kumandra has lost.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” reliably follows Disney’s tried-and-true formula to great success. Positive messages about hope, perseverance, trust, sacrifice and faith are woven throughout this film and are exemplified in some of the most well-rounded characters to grace a Disney film in quite a while. 

Despite its magical themes and lofty messages about hope, sacrifice and faith, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is a very direct and down-to-earth film whose story is propelled more by its characters’ natural developments than its plot devices. 

Its characters are not simply portrayed as heroes and villains, but rather as complex persons with often admirable goals who―due to their differing contexts and experiences―fail to make amends and search for the right solutions at critical moments. The conflict between characters and tribes in “Raya and the Last Dragon” feels inevitable rather than contrived, which greatly increases the impact of the story’s climax. 

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is all the more impressive when one considers that this is one of Disney’s only animated films without a romantic plot or subplot, instead relying on the organic, non-romantic growth of relationships within the film to intrigue and invest audiences. 

Tran turns in a dedicated voice performance as Raya, capturing the attention and increasing affections of viewers with her earnest portrayal of a wistful heroine, and Gemma Chan provides a similarly intriguing and sympathetic portrayal of Namaari, Raya’s foil.

Disney’s animation department noticeably stepped up its game in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” In this film, Disney manages to wed intricacy and vibrancy in a manner normally found only in Disney-Pixar collaborations. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is animated in a way that leads to an appreciation of its visual beauty without questioning its methods or medium. 

Despite the superb animation, voice-acting and characters, some viewers will certainly find fault in the film’s dialogue. Though it is easy for one to suspend disbelief enough to enjoy a magical tale told in a world set a long time ago in a place far, far away, it is rather jarring to hear terms like “nerds” in a story set in a primitive land. 

Though Disney has made a habit of incorporating modern phrases into fairy tales in ancient times and distant lands, it is a bad habit. Such references, though they might coerce a cheap laugh out of a preteen, tend to take the viewer out of the experience of the film and harm the integrity of the world the storytellers are building. 

Despite this misstep, “Raya and the Last Dragon” remains another well-structured and earnest attempt to deliver on the classic Disney formula while offering a bit more vibrancy and panache than Disney’s past few releases. 

This heartwarming film will undoubtedly entertain parents and children alike, and is certainly worth seeing on the big screen for anyone looking for a fun and family-friendly time at the movies.

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