The latest entry in Disney’s slate of animated features has landed in style. Raya and the Last Dragon takes Disney’s relatively familiar formula and turns it into a film that is exciting, fun, moving and utterly stunning across every frame.
I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, this is hands down Disney Animation’s best film since the 2013 release of Frozen. It’s consistently entertaining the whole way through and has everything that makes an animated film memorable. The core premise is as follows: Set in Kumandra, the world of dragons and humans has been torn apart, now it’s up to Raya, a lone warrior, to track down the last dragon and save the world. This is merely the surface of what this film is – with themes of trust, family and forgiveness playing a major role in the narrative’s progression. There’s no doubt that the story follows a structure that’s not entirely new, but it’s the characters, lessons and action set-pieces along the way that make this feel consistently fresh and engaging right to the end. The journey that Raya embarks on is very fast paced, constantly moving to new environments and meeting new characters that all have a lasting impact on the story. It’s incredibly well written and absolutely no time is wasted, especially considering how much content is covered in the standard 1 hour and 47 minute runtime. To put it into perspective, this narrative holds so much storytelling potential that it could have easily been a 10-episode series and been just as, if not more, awesome.
It’s a very fluid structure that picks its moments for high-stakes action and heart-centric scenes to take hold. The issue I find with many animated features is that, at one point in the film, they’ll slow down, lose focus or focus on too much and it’ll lead to a disappointing end result that could’ve otherwise been great. Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t make that mistake – it takes the slower moments and places them perfectly in the narrative, giving them a strong importance in the overarching story. When the film ends and the general message is fully realised, just thinking back on some subtle scenes early on makes you realise how tightly everything in here has been arranged. Meanwhile, the action scenes are endlessly exciting, not just because they look cool, but because you’re invested so deeply in the journey of these characters that you genuinely care to see how things turn out. It really doesn’t put a foot wrong while fleshing out these characters.
The film may be beautiful in terms of the heart of the story, but you cannot walk away without taking in just how utterly stunning this animation is. There’s a benchmark that Disney has created with their animation, as well as what Pixar has done with their recent films like Soul, and Raya and the Last Dragon seems to have hit – or even surpassed – that benchmark. Every shot is an absolute masterstroke. Even just the way the fur on the dragon moves in the wind is amazing. Every landscape shot and character close-up is a prime example of just how clean and realistic animation can really get.
The cast behind the characters all bring their A-games, but none more than what Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina and Gemma Chan manage to pull off with their roles. Firstly, Kelly is utter perfection as the titular heroine, bringing so much life and personality to the character of Raya that makes rooting for her absolutely effortless. She’s really brings out the charming, strong and caring qualities of the character in the best way she could. Alongside Kelly, Awkwafina is the perfect choice for voicing Sisu, about as perfect as Gilbert Gottfried was for Iago in Aladdin. Her comedic timing is on point, bringing the majority of the laughs through her signature quick, snappy dialogue. This duo lead the film flawlessly! Then there’s Gemma Chan who kills it as Namaari. In every scene she gets, she makes her presence known – really making her character’s arc an impactful one.
In the end, Raya and the Last Dragon is a complete package – delivering a fantastic story with great action sequences, a lot of heart and a touch of light humour along the way. It’s an exciting ride that never once dips in quality. The animation is flawless and the performances are as good as it gets. The writing and directing is top notch, really making this one of the best projects to come out of Walt Disney Animation, especially in this more modern era. If there’s one animated film you must check out right now, it’s this one!