Disney Animation delivers an action-packed epic that is absolutely thrilling in every regard. Raya and the Last Dragon is chock full of martial arts combat, swashbuckling sword duels, and a mischievous con baby that nearly steals the show. The well-written plot teaches valuable lessons about trust, friendship, and the divisive nature of tribalism. The film explores the folly of war with surprising depth and nuance. Children will leave Raya and the Last Dragon highly entertained and hopefully more empathetic.
Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in an ancient land that was known as Kumandra. Humans and dragons lived in blissful harmony until evil entities, the Druun, attacked with no mercy. Humans and dragons alike were turned to stone by their dark magic. The last dragon standing, Sisu (Awkwafina), used her incredible powers to defeat the Druun. The stone people returned to normal, but the dragons did not. Sisu mysteriously vanished, leaving the Dragon Gem behind as the only weapon against the Druun's return.
Five hundred years later, humanity has fractured into five warring societies named after dragon body parts. The Heart Kingdom protected the Dragon Gem and prospered, while the others bickered and struggled. Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the Heart leader, believes that Kumandra can rise again. He invites Fang, Tail, Talon, and Spine to a peace summit. His young daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), has trained diligently to become a Guardian of the Dragon Gem. She is suspicious and wary of the other kingdoms.
At the summit, Raya meets Namaari (Gemma Chan), a fellow "dragon nerd" and Princess of the Fang. When Chief Benja's hopes are shattered by a shocking betrayal, the resulting fracas releases the Druun spirits back into the world. Raya, along with her trusty rolling sidekick, an armadillo/pill bug called Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), embark on a desperate quest to find Sisu and vanquish the Druun forever.
The fear of "others" and the blinding effect of hatred is thoughtfully addressed in the film. Raya's experiences have reinforced her negative beliefs. She has no faith whatsoever in people. Raya's discovery of Sisu challenges her perceptions. The dragon is not what she expected. Sisu is kind, trusting, and nowhere near the fearsome warrior of fabled lore. Sisu preaches that differences can be overcome for a greater good. That kindness and compassion are the greatest weapons against tyranny.
The supporting characters are a hoot. Raya gains very different allies on her journey. My favorite is a thieving "con baby", you read that right, called Noi (Thalia Tran). The toddler terror and her band of Ongis, weird monkey-like critters, are hilarious. They look adorably cute and harmless. Then pick your pocket and transform into an elite tactical strike team. Noi and the Ongis lead a raid that had me laughing out loud.
The film has superb animation and fight choreography. There's a lot of swordplay, but the hand to hand fighting is equally amazing. Raya and the Last Dragon is an action extravaganza from beginning to end. The violence is obviously stylized, but not without consequences. Characters get hurt and wounded. Their mortality represents another key learning point to the story. Being the best individual fighter doesn't guarantee victory.
Raya and the Last Dragon continues Disney's themes of female empowerment and cultural inclusivity. Raya, Namaari, and Sisu are Asian characters that symbolize the strength of teamwork. The film brilliantly brings their hopeful story to a global audience. Raya and the Last Dragon is a production of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures. It will be released theatrically on March 5th with a concurrent Premiere Access streaming debut on Disney+.