Disney Animation is back and better than ever with a brand-new princess cut from a different, yet familiar cloth. Raya and the Last Dragon may not follow the familiar Disney Princess formula, but it owes its brilliance to so many epic influences that came before it.
Raya and the Last Dragon follows the titular Raya (Kellie Marie Tran) as she journeys throughout the kingdom of Kumandra to unite region against a common enemy. Raya must find the last living dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) in order to restore balance to Kumandra and save her loved ones.
The Disney Princess brand is one of the most highly regarded and exclusive franchises in Hollywood history. The launch of a new princess comes with a new era of characters, merchandise and experiences across the Walt Disney Company’s vast collection of media. The exclusivity has come with an ever-growing social movement to racially and ethnically diversify the Disney Princess roster of characters.
The most recent addition to the brand, 2016’s Moana, was a bit underwhelming coming off of box office mega hit Frozen. Still, its quality and its longevity has proved that even if a princess movie is hits a bit soft in theaters, the brand itself extends the life and potency of any character that touches it. Raya and the Last Dragon may have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to a theatrical release thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the overwhelming quality of the film matched with its branding will soon be too powerful for audiences to ignore.
Perhaps the strongest quality of this film is Disney’s ability to diversify in more ways than expected. The Disney Princess brand is slowly but surely diversifying in terms of racial representation on screen, but Raya’sbiggest strength is its ability to diversify genres and inspiration beyond the typical princess film. Until now, only Disney/Pixar’s Brave sidestepped the cheery musical tone traditionally attributed to the franchise (and some have a hard time accepting Pixar’s inclusion into the club). Raya and the Last Dragon does a far better job adapting to a different tone than Brave did because Disney Animation did not lose sight of the essential, successful aspects of their princess movies.
Raya and the Last Dragon has the fun, adventure tone of the princess franchise while also acting as an action epic that bends genres and inspirations from different corners of mythology and pop culture. Perhaps the most obvious inspiration for this film is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is a perfect choice for a story that explores a vast world with intricate lore and incredible martial arts choreography to spice it up.
Avatar is not Raya’s only inspiration. The film has hints and tones of many other pop culture landmarks like Lord of the Rings, Kill Bill, Kung Fu Panda, and more. Raya and the Last Dragon does not rip-off these movies, it only combines their greatest qualities in order to create something new and fresh (which is actually very appropriate considering the theme of combined unity in the film).
The voice work, led by Star Wars alumna Kellie Marie Tran, is top notch with a strong comedic performance by Awkwafina. The animation and character design are as stunning as we’ve come to expect from Disney. At this point, anything less than perfection would be a misstep for Disney Animation. Finally, the action is incredibly choreographed and visceral in a way that is incredibly rare for animation (or even live-action) to pull off effectively.
I cannot sing this film’s praises enough. The only qualm I have with Raya and the Last Dragon is that Disney undersold the potential of the franchise. The two stories that it was most inspired by, Avatar and Lord of the Rings, recognized that stories of this scale better set for a trilogy or a television series. Raya does a good enough job using the essentials of an epic adventure, but the story of this one film had the potential to expand into a trilogy itself, and it makes me wonder what this could have been if Disney believed in it a little more.
Filmnetic Grade: A
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