Behold, a new Disney princess! Raya and the Last Dragon has been out on Disney+ for an extra fee for a few months at this point and it is about to be released to the average subscriber in just a few days. Obviously, I have already seen it, and I did so twice right after it came out the first time but life got in the way and anyways, this seems to be the perfect time to publish my review for everyone who is sane enough not to pay extra.
So, let’s get right to it. Spoiler-free until I say it isn’t, as always. Raya and the Last Dragon is Disney’s newest princess movie. And it falls in line with the last few Disney princess movies in portraying a strong, independent young woman on a quest. A quest that isn’t finding a prince and living happily ever after. Well, she does want to live happily ever after of course. But like, not as a trophy wife.
Raya is the princess of a small fictional country somewhere in South East Asia, probably. Her country is part of a bigger region of five countries who once had strong ties and prospered protected by magical dragons. But the dragons have been slain by monsters and all five nations struggle under the monsters that turn people to stone. It goes from bad to worse and Raya finds herself pretty much alone in a wasteland, searching for the last dragon. A mythical creature who is supposed to be able to help her drive out the monsters and restore peace and prosperity – oh and unfreeze all the stone people.
It is a charming story with a bunch of really great supporting characters and a great morale behind it all. It’s also notable that Disney once again did their best to cast appropriate actors and be as much culturally aware as you can be while creating new nations. I hope they learned from the Mulan live action debacle. The story is very clear, there are no big surprises along the way but it is set up with a lot of variety, bringing to life each nation individually. Each of the characters Raya meets along the way, from the dragon (voiced by Awkwafina) to a monkey street gang led by a baby, is distinct and gets their screen time.
It’s also a very humorous movie, to be sure, and it’s generally a good mixture of spoken and situational humor. My only issue here is with a bunch of “current” colloquial language that made absolutely no sense to me and kinda took me out of the moment.
It’s also probably not a spoiler to say that I really liked the soundtrack – except, notably, the main song that get’s played during the credits. It’s not a musical and although you could clearly identify a few scenes that would’ve been destined for breaking into song, I didn’t miss it. My last non-spoiler point would be, that the animation is absolutely stunningly beautiful, from the variation of landscapes and architecture to the details in every character to the dragon itself. It was to be expected but it’s worth mentioning non the less.
All of this being said, if you haven’t seen Raya and the Last Dragon yet and are still unsure, watch the trailer here.
Now, let’s get into the spoiler zone, which is best read after seeing the movie. Here’s the official warning for those of you skimming over the text:
SPOILERS AHEAD! THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Okay, I hope we’re safe now. Because I really need to get a few things off my chest that are definitely spoilers. First of all, I did not really like the dragon design. There, I said it. I liked the execution and especially that one scene with all of those dragons together of course, but I felt like it was a weird design to begin with. Like why did a water dragon have soft fur? What are those Teletubby-like antennas?
Speaking of design, is it just me or was most of the imagery of the five nations very reminiscent of Black Panther’s Wakanda? The lush waterfalls, the colorful robes and the different tribes – it all had a distinct feeling not only of African influences in general but of Black Panther in particular. And I had a similar déjà vu feeling about the wasteland that reminded me a lot of Star Wars landscapes. And that floating city was very Pirates of the Caribbean, to be honest. Not that any of it was ugly or badly done; it was all beautifully done and so diverse, but it did feel not very new. But maybe there are only so many ways you can do a desert or a floating city.
In contrast, my favorite thing was probably everything about the Fang tribe. That’s the tribe Namaari is from and I love basically everything about it. The sleek fashion. The stately architecture. The riding of giant cats with bunny ears. How the queen called the kids kittens. It’s just so my aesthetic. Except, how did that girl get so buff. Like, she’s probably around 16 just like Raya but she has like superhero physique going on.
Staying on the topic of animation, I really, really don’t understand the roly-poly riding. Like at all. How does the saddle stay on. How does it see. Just how. It made no sense and again, it really took me out of the moment a couple of times because I kept trying to figure it out.
Okay, finally moving on from the animation. I like Raya as a princess but I think the movie lived through its supporting characters. While the baby and its monkeys were just mostly comic relief, I really felt for both the little boy and the gentle giant. Both turned out very surprising and showed the magnitude of the situation very well. I also liked the dragon and her accidental humor, even though she was sometimes annoying, so I could definitely understand Raya’s exasperation.
A very obvious character without any surprising turns was Namaari, the second princess, but I liked her none the less. I especially liked the way they went from friends to enemies to friends to enemies and then besties. Their fight was actually pretty well choreographed and felt like from a proper action movie, so I obviously enjoyed that a lot. Seeing not only one but two badass princesses that are very different but very strong in their own ways is awesome. I also think, they had chemistry that miiiiight just go beyond mere friendship and I would’ve definitely liked to see that. How badass would that be? Two warrior princesses ruling their kingdoms together? But alas, it’s Disney. A strong hint is all we’re going to get.
Anyhow, I really enjoyed many aspects of the movie and will probably watch it again once it’s out on Disney+ but I do think it has some flaws.