Movie Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is ‘Moana’ but better

The world seems to come to a halt whenever a new Disney animated movie comes out. Films like “Zootopia” and “Moana” were bona fide instant classics, and I still have nightmares of “Let It Go” playing several times in a row on the radio. Now, it’s surprising that we just got a new Disney movie that no one seems to be talking about. It’s a shame, because “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the best Disney movie I’ve seen in a while.

Long after the era of dragons has ended, five tribes struggle to control the last remnants of magic in the land of Kumandra. A princess from one of these tribes, Raya­—played by Kelly Marie Tran—accidentally unleashes an ancient evil and must travel throughout the different tribes gathering the magic necessary to save Kumandra from certain doom.

Like most Disney movies, the animation is absolutely gorgeous. What makes it stand out is how it blends realistic environments with the cartoonish designs of the characters and creatures. Other films have done this, most recently “Soul,” but this film makes it look the most seamless and natural.

The gorgeous designs complement some fantastic, original characters. As Raya travels, she gathers a troupe of comic-relief characters who all have their own unique tragic backstories and sense of humor. Two characters in particular—a baby and a boy who owns a shrimp boat—steal every scene they’re in.

Awkwafina’s dragon character Sisu was probably the most grating part. I didn’t find many of her jokes funny, and she just came off as annoying and preachy a lot of the time.

But Raya herself is where the real meat lies. Her rivalry with Namaari, played by Gemma Chan and Jona Xiao, a princess from another tribe, drives the whole plot from the very start. Each encounter they have gets progressively more tense, and it leads up to a truly exciting climax that was as cathartic as it was harrowing. (No spoilers here, don’t worry.)

That being said, I’m now realizing just how much lore and plot there is to this film. It’s so jam packed that I almost wish it were a TV series instead. Nothing seems particularly underdeveloped, but I just wish the film could have spent more time in each location.

If you were to combine the journey from “Moana” with the setting and political conflict of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” you’d probably end up with “Raya and the Last Dragon.” While that may make it seem less original, it manages to combine all of those elements to make what is wholly unique for a Disney film.

One surprising difference between this and “Moana” is the lack of songs. For once Disney didn’t feel the need to make their newest Disney princess film a musical, and it’s all the better for it. If songs were shoehorned in here, it would’ve greatly conflicted with the tone and pacing.

Is “Raya and the Last Dragon” worth the $30 that Disney has the audacity to ask for it? No, but I struggle to think of a movie that would be. Luckily it’s being added to Disney+ for free in June, so perhaps then more people will be able to enjoy “Raya and the Last Dragon” for the fun romp that it is.

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