Raya and the Last Dragon review: Martial arts and fantasy merged beautifully

Walt Disney Animation Studios has never shied away from putting its own spin on popular genres, whether it’s the superhero-inspired Big Hero 6 or the gaming fantasy of Wreck-It Ralph. And, by and large, those forays have all managed to cast the Disney magic that makes them critical and commercial hits.

With Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney tries its luck with a new genre: The martial arts hero’s journey. And much like the aforementioned films, Raya finds inspiration in all the right places, and imbues it with the sort of emotional weight and bright, fantastic aesthetic we’ve come to expect with Disney’s big-screen adventures.

In a world …

Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), Raya and the Last Dragon follows a young warrior, Raya (voiced by Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran), as she sets out to reverse the damage done to the fractured world of Kumandra by the sinister creatures known as Druun. Along the way, she receives help from the magical dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), as well as a ragtag team of enemies-turned-allies who join her in the quest.

And because every great hero needs a great villain, Raya finds herself pursued by Namaari (Gemma Chan), a rival warrior whose clan wants to keep the magic Raya is searching for all to itself.

Raya’s quest takes her from burning desert plains to crowded, floating cities as the film explores both the fantastic world she inhabits and themes of trust, family, and the true nature of courage.

Walking the line

Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t waste any time in revealing exactly where it gets its inspiration. The film’s opening scene has Raya acknowledge the “lone hero in a desolate wasteland” trope she finds herself in, and that sort of authenticity — and enthusiasm — permeates every scene in the film.

Every bit the honor-bound, wandering protagonist of cinema sagas, Raya is always several steps ahead of her foes — when she’s not surviving on luck alone — and both willing and able to take down any foe reckless enough to test her mettle. Whether she’s speeding from one fantastic location to the next in search of magical treasure or engaging in samurai-style showdowns with enemies, Raya is as calm, cool, and collected as any of Hollywood’s iconic lone wolves with hearts of gold.

That’s an impressive feat for an animated character to pull off, and Tran finds the perfect balance of swagger and raw emotion in voicing her, imbuing the character with a humanity that grounds all of that confidence in something real and relatable.

Looking good

Tran’s vocal contributions are matched by animation and visual effects that give her — as well as her emotional journey — an impressive range. That holds true for the rest of the characters in Raya, too, as well as the world they inhabit.

Disney’s animation has improved by leaps with each feature the animation studio has brought to theaters, and Raya is no exception. The fantastic world of Kumandra is a lush, textured environment as beautiful as it is dangerous, populated with colorful creatures, eccentric people, and eye-catching architecture.

The dragon Sisu is particularly spectacular visually (as well as having some of the best lines), and the way in which the character changes its color and radiance while twisting and spinning its ribbon-like body shows how far animation has come since the days of Mulan. That it manages to do all of this while remaining deeply expressive in its face and subtler movements is a testament to the studio’s attention to detail.

Something for everyone

What Raya and the Last Dragon lacks in musical numbers, it more than makes up for in both action and comedy, offering something for all ages of audience.

The film’s humor is the sort of cross-generational comedy Disney does so well, blending sillier elements with clever dialog adults will appreciate without pandering too overtly to the younger crowd. As Sisu, Awkwafina’s delivery is flawless, managing to convey both her wonder at what the world has become and her worry about the role she’ll play in its future.

The quality of the action sequences in Raya and the Last Dragon are even more impressive than the humor, as Disney has never delivered the level of fight choreography Raya’s tale embraces. Raya’s battles with Namaari are fast, frantic affairs, full of elaborate weapon use and feats of acrobatics that would feel at home in great martial arts cinema.

Watching the fight choreography in Raya, it’s no surprise that co-writer Qui Nguyen is an accomplished martial artist, as his influence on this particular aspect of the film is clear.

The complete package

With its tight script, perfect casting, stunning visual aesthetic, and one-of-a-kind action, Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest in a long line of successful features for Disney’s animation studio.

The film also arrives at a time when many of its themes are particularly resonant, from the importance of trust to our ability to love the family we build around us as much as the one we’re born into. That the film deals with these themes in a way that never feels heavy-handed might be one of its greatest strengths — which is saying a lot, given how beautiful it looks.

Originally scheduled to premiere in November 2020, Raya now arrives at a time when much of America is just beginning to contemplate post-pandemic life and the uncertainty of a return to anything resembling “normal,” making the aforementioned themes feel particularly important.

With a little something for everyone and a lot of depth to explore, Raya and the Last Dragon is a feel-good gift everyone should appreciate.

Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon is available now on Disney+ via Premier Access and in theaters where available. 

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