I’m a theater person, y’all! Watching a movie in theaters is one of my favorite ways to spend a Friday night. There’s just nothing like seeing a brand new movie, hot off the press, on the big screen! So, as you can probably imagine, when I heard Disney was sending their newest film, Raya and the Last Dragon, to theaters, I knew I wanted to go see it. And see it we did! And let me tell you, being in that theater again was awesome. But the movie itself?
Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for Raya and the Last Dragon.
Raya and the Last Dragon is an Asian-inspired fantasy film set in a dystopian world of magic, catfish-monkey creatures, and—most importantly—dragons, who bring water and life to the diverse kingdom of Kumandra. There’s just one problem: all the dragons are long gone, having sacrificed themselves to save the humans from the life-sucking Druun. And when the Dragon Gem, the last remaining vessel of the dragons’ magic, is destroyed and its pieces scattered across the land, it seems as though all is lost. But Raya, the brave princess of Heart, isn’t ready to accept defeat. With her country divided and a bitter hunter on her tail, Raya must find the last dragon, Sisu, to fix the Dragon Gem not only to revive her father, who was turned to stone after the Gem was destroyed, but also to restore peace to her kingdom—for good.
Things I liked
So, first off, the obvious: Sisu is a dragon. How could I not like her? XD
But really, Sisu was the best part of the film for me. In my opinion, she’s the perfect blend of geeky best friend and gentle sage, with a voice (courtesy of actor/rapper Awkwafina) that fits her personality to a T. I commend Disney for creating a character that displays realistic human emotions, such as fear, naivety, and social awkwardness, as well as a deep, profound insight into the habits and behaviors of humans. Not to mention, she’s gorgeous—watching her swoop and swirl across the screen is like watching poetry in animal form. I mean, just look at her! That horn! That mane! *heart eyes*
The core theme of Raya and the Last Dragon is trust. The term—and its relation to Kumandra’s history—is discussed frequently between the characters, most often Raya and Sisu. Raya believes that since the world is broken, no one can trust anyone; but Sisu asserts that the world is broken because no one trusts anyone. Initially, Raya scoffs at Sisu’s naivety, but ultimately comes to see the truth of what the dragon claims.
Trust is something that involves humility: a willingness to surrender your beliefs, at least in part, in favor of those of another. In the end, this is exactly what Raya ends up doing: though fear is plain in her face, Raya forces herself to entrust her piece of the Dragon Gem to her sworn enemy, Namaari, thus taking the first step towards a renewed nation built from trust and selflessness. Inspired by this simple, yet powerful act, members of the rest of Kumandra’s kingdoms follow in Raya’s footsteps, handing over their Gem pieces in the hopes that Namaari will use their collective power to end the Druun’s tyranny and restore a nation built from faith and selflessness.
From a Christian perspective, of course, the film’s message feels somewhat shallow, because we ourselves live in a broken world—one that can’t be fixed by dragons. No matter how much trust and love you pour into a person (or group of people), they will always eventually fall short of your expectations. It is our human nature, our sin nature, to fail and betray one another. This is why the Bible urges us to put our faith in God alone, for He is sinless, perfect beyond comprehension; and though you may not always understand His plan, you can be assured that He will never fail you.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.Proverbs 3:5, ESV
Sisu’s siblings: Pengu, Pranee, Jagan, and Amba (that’s them in the picture above). Especially Pengu. I could get behind a prequel movie/series about just him. ^_^
Things I didn’t like
Pretty much every other character
Besides Raya and Sisu, the titular protagonists, the other major characters in the film are Boun, a street-smart orphan restaurateur; Tong, a courageous warrior-avenger; Noi, a toddler con artist; and Namaari, Raya’s old friend-turned-nemesis. If I had to pick one of them (besides Sisu) to like, it would be Boun, because he was cute and funny and had some clever lines. But everyone else? Boring. Raya was basically a Moana ripoff, but depressingly pessimistic and with almost no personality; Tong was your stereotypical fearsome but not-too-bright-and-therefore-soft-hearted big guy; I didn’t understand the inclusion of Noi’s character at all, unless Disney has interest in competing with DreamWorks’ Boss Baby franchise for some reason; and Namaari was just downright annoying throughout. Even the main antagonist, the Druun, is terribly underdeveloped. Save for its malicious nature and aversion to water, we learn almost nothing else about this force that has Kumandra’s inhabitants literally petrified.
Clearly, with Raya and the Last Dragon Disney was trying to create a more unusual cast dynamic, but I’m not sure this particular formula was the right one.
I was disappointed by the vibe of this film. I’m all for Asian fantasy, but Raya just felt…off. It felt a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean and a bit like The Hunger Games. It dabbled in the flashy martial arts scenes of Ninjago and Kung Fu Panda, and had elements of Hindu, Buddhist, and New Age philosophy. There were also a few moments (most being part of a montage of sorts) that reminded me of a comic book. And diverse biomes and wacky animal hybrids strongly reminiscent of The Croods rounded out this confusing mishmash of cultures.
Again, I understand that Disney was trying to go for something new in terms of culture representation, and kudos to them for that. But… *shrugs* I don’t know, I don’t think this particular Asian fantasy is their best work. And it’s not as if they can’t nail it: the 2020 Mulan was a masterpiece, and the Kung Fu Panda movies are some of my favorite DreamWorks movies of all time.
Also, as a side note, though I now know the film was supposed to be modeled after Southeast Asian culture, that wasn’t very clear to me while I was actively watching it. (I’m no huge expert on Asian culture, but still.)
The different tribes of Kumandra, which my brother commented were unimaginatively named; and their distinctions from one another also felt stereotypical somehow.
Tuk Tuk, Raya’s potato bug-mole thing. Yet another largely useless yet adorable and therefore profitable Disney pet. (Sorry, Tuk Tuk. You’re nothing but a money grab. )
All in all, I found Raya and the Last Dragon to be one of Disney’s more underwhelming movies. It had a few strong points, but a fair amount of weak points. As we were walking out of the theater, my mom commented that Raya didn’t feel like a Disney movie, and I have to agree with her. Coming off Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen II, both of which have such a strong Disney feeling to them, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like a DreamWorks cast of characters thrown into a lazily-designed universe, replete of stunning songs (or even many scores) or shocking twists or really much emotion or character development at all. Critically-acclaimed it may be, but this Disney girl is rather unimpressed.
Thanks for reading! Have you seen Raya and the Last Dragon? What did you think of it? Who’s cooler—Sisu or Toothless?