‘Raya and the Last Dragon’: A Compelling Southeast Asian Animation with Stunning Visuals and a Fascinating Story

Disney’s latest original animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon is the best animated film since Moana. The animated epic employs the use of vibrant colours and eye popping visuals to depict Southeast Asian culture. The action-packed adventure film introduces the world of Kumandra where mankind and mythical creatures known as dragons coexist with humans. The dragons bring peace, and prosperity to the land but man’s inability to live in harmony brought an evil force which feeds on human’s disunity and despair. 

Image via Disney

This evil force is a villainous plague that turns man and anything it comes across into stone. The dragons did all they could to save mankind and sacrificed themselves in the process. Now, 500 years later with humanity divided into five  factions (Tail, Talon, Fang, Spine and Heart), the only thing keeping the evil Druun at bay is a magical gem.  This magical gem was used by the last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), 500 years ago to vanquish the Druun, which now lies in the hand of Heart.

Without the dragons,  the bond and friendship that once existed between humans became nonexistent. The gem is protected by Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), a warrior of Heart and his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who will one day take his place. However, an unexpected circumstance and a misplaced trust in the wrong person led to the gem being shattered and the release  of the Druun which turned Raya’s father into a stone. Each tribe took a piece of the shattered gem and a piece rests in Raya’s hand. 

Image via Disney
Raya and Sisu, the last dragon

With the already broken world on the brink of destruction, the fate of mankind rests on Raya. She embarks on a perilous journey with her animal sidekick Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk) to find Sisu, the long lost dragon, the remaining fragments of the gem and also free her father from the Druun’s bondage. During Raya’s adventure with Sisu, she encounters  some engaging characters like the cute con artist, Little Noi (Thalia Tran); Spine giant, Tong (Benedict Wong); Boun (Izaac Wang) and a reunion with her arch nemesis, Namaari (Gemma Chan ).

The artistic style employed in the animation coupled with the bright and powerful characters is impressive. It delivers appealing and colourful visuals with a deep narrative of a cynical world. The last dragon, Sisu is used to create a new angle to storytelling. Dragons are formidable creatures but the fact that it takes a powerful one to change Raya’s heart and nudge her to trust people and let go of the past shows how the least expected people can guide us towards the right path. Dragons in Raya and the Last Dragon are given human attributes and emotions to make the animation captivating. 

A picture of Sisu, Raya and Namaari. Image via Disney.

The animated epic presents a brief backstory for the antagonist, Namaari, which can make viewers sympathize and understand her better. Raya and the Last Dragon presents a beautiful and attractive world of loveable characters. Each character has a distinctive look and one could almost write a story about them just by their looks (except maybe two-faced little Noi😅). The excellent voice acting by Awkwafina, Kelly Marie Tran, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang and others make the already charming movie fun to watch. 

One thing that makes Raya different from other Disney heroines like Moana and Elsa (Frozen), is her brawny character and belief in herself right from the onset.  It takes Moana time and a journey across the ocean to discover her true power but Raya is shown as a strong and tenacious character right from the beginning of the movie.

Image via Disney
Raya and her father, Benja

The usual trademarks of Disney are all evident in the animated epic; a heroine, a mystery to solve, beautiful creatures and a journey to save the world. The animation relays the notion that humans must learn to trust one another, set their differences aside for the better good and the importance of teamwork. In relation to this, what makes the animation so appealing is how it relates to the current happenings in the world today. The world is faced with a common enemy, the Coronavirus, and mankind’s  hope depends on how well we work together and trust each other to defeat the virus. “Trust” is a strong word, a farce that exists in the real world but that is what Raya and the Last Dragon premise evolves around. 

The adventurous plot brings a new perspective to a Disney heroine. The Disney characters that once took up the warrior stride were Mulan and Pocohontas. Raya just joined the ship with this heartwarming and brilliant animation. The dragon suggests that “the world is broken because you don’t trust anyone”. This shows that one of the elements that can glue society and the world together is trust—an element that is missing among the humans in Raya and the last Dragon—hence the emergence of the Druun—an evil plague that feeds on human discord. Druun is a plague synonymous to “war” in the real world. A plague that has broken nations and destroyed some beyond repair. The ending of the animation shows the importance of trust, but then the idea of “trust” in the real world is just a fantasy because trust is a rarity to come across in the world.

Rating: 8/10

Side Musings

  • Little Noi and her gang of three baboon-like creatures are fun to watch. Her character presents the idea of how the young are forced to grow up in a difficult world. 
  • The character of Sisu reeks of humor and is the most beautiful character in the animation. The belief that a dragon will seem unapproachable and untouchable is defied with the character of Sisu, a cheerful and hearty character.
  • The martial art fighting style used in the movie is exciting.

Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ with premiere access.

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