The pandemic has forced movie studios to think differently. Paramount sold many films in its 2020 slate to streaming services, while Warner Bros threw everything on to HBO Max. Disney has been more cautious, preserving its mega blockbusters for the big screen while also testing the waters with a pay per view offering of Mulan, and giving Pixar’s Soul to Disney+ subscribers for free. Raya and The Last Dragon, its Animated Classic (i.e. Disney but not Pixar), is taking the former route.
Disney+ subscribers will have to pay £19.99 to watch the film originally intended for cinemas. It’s a risky move for an unfamiliar story, especially given reports that Mulan had underwhelming sales upon its debut. Will a touch of animated magic buck the trend?
Inspired by Southeast Asian cultures, the film is set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, several centuries after dragons that were native to the land sacrificed themselves to save humanity from a dark force known as the Druun. Society is split into kingdoms that are deeply resentful of each other, with an argument resulting in the destruction of a sacred artefact and the return of the Druun.
With hope seemingly lost, warrior princess Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) searches for The Last Dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), who holds the key to bringing back those lost to the Druun, including her beloved father (Daniel Dae Kim). With time running out, and a princess from another land (Gemma Chan) on her tail, Raya learns that she must learn to trust again in order to save the day.
From the beginning, you can see parallels with Disney Princess hits Frozen and Moana. We’ve got absent parents, ancient prophecies, perils linked to nature, and characters with unnervingly large eyes. Those hoping for another Let It Go or How Far I’ll Go will be disappointed, however, as this is not a musical.
But what it lacks it songs, it adds in nuance. Moana and the Frozen made great efforts to reinvent the Disney Princess formula, creating female characters who were their own heroes and not waiting to be saved by a handsome prince. Raya’s journey takes it further, offering numerous perspectives and making much of the struggle internal. Chan’s character, Namaari, is Raya’s foe but by no means the baddie. Like Raya, she’s acting in the interests of her own home and family. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the villain is our fear and mistrust of each other.
It’s a noble message, but one that doesn’t necessarily suggest a lot of fun. Thankfully the animation is astonishing, even without the luxury of a cinema screen, with photorealistic locations and action scenes. Combining excellent animation with Southeast Asian inspired design, it really is gorgeous.
Elevating the fun further is a well-cast company of voice actors who give an extra dimension to their roles. Tran wins your heart in the lead, and gets a treasure of a co-star in Awkwafina. The versatile star seems perfectly suited to the mischievous and hopeful dragon, stealing scenes with her quick wit and energy. The pair acquire memorable allies along the way, including Benedict Wong as a lonely warrior, and the hilarious Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a “Con-Baby” running scams with a gang of animal friends. Even when the script creeps toward mawkishness, the chemistry of all involved keeps things sincere.
Raya and The Last Dragon hums along to a familiar rhythm, but it’s what it does in between these beats that makes it so entertaining. While it’s unlikely to have the longevity of recent Disney princess hits, it continues to progress the animated tradition toward something that’s relevant today.
Raya and The Last Dragon is available on Disney+ with Premier Access, from March 5th