Double-Edged Dragon: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) Reviewed

images courtesy Disney

Trust is a double-edged sword. Often hard-won and little deserved, it can take a lifetime to earn and seconds to shatter. As frightening to receive as it is to give, trust can make or break any connection forged between two beings. Raya and the Last Dragon, a new animated adventure, posits that it can also make or break the fate of an entire culture.

Disney’s latest animated feature, released both theatrically and available on Disney+ with a premium membership, is a dynamic and ambitious blend of action film, fantasy, and Eastern-inspired legend. Starring a young heroine named Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and a silly, endearing water dragon named Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), the film takes cues from series like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, blending perfectly paced action scenes with heart and humor.

Five hundred years prior to the beginning of the tale, the people of the land of Kumandra are protected by a clan of dragons who provide the rain and the waters of the hundreds of rivers that feed the country and whose magic wards off a terrible plague known as the Druun – a shapeless force that saps the life from the land and turns living creatures to stone as it steals their souls. Faced with extinction, the dragons place all of their magic into the youngest of their clan – Sisu, whose sacrifice places her spirit into a glowing gem and saves Kumandra from utter destruction.

But the Druun sowed seeds of distrust between the various tribes of Kumandra, creating a schism amongst its people; each piece of Kumandra, named for a part of a dragon’s body, seeks to control the dragon gem, being kept protected in the Heart of Kumandra by Raya and her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Benja, realizing that the struggles of the land might be made easier by trying to unify the tribes, is betrayed by the warriors of Fang’s tribe and the gem is broken into pieces and scattered across the land. Raya, believing that Sisu still exists beyond the edges of the rivers, sets out from Heart to save her father when he and his people are all turned to stone.

Faced with a broken world and only the hope of fixing the dragon’s gem to try fighting the rekindled Druun, Raya must overcome her guilt and shame, as well as her distrust in others, to learn how true unity can happen in a country torn apart by ages of discord and disharmony.

The beauty of this film is largely in its lush world-building; the lands of Kumandra – from the military stronghold of Fang to the desert outposts of Tail – are inspired, each culturally distinct and providing insight as to how the original country worked as a whole before the division between each of the tribes occurred. As Raya and Sisu travel throughout the land, searching for the lost pieces of gem and discovering the old magic as it – alongside memories of her petrified siblings – reawakens in the young water dragon, they begin to create a small tribe of their own, built from abandoned misfits who have each lost someone to the Druun. As they gather the shards of the broken gem, their slow and strained bonds of trust begin to patch up the world – and Raya’s heart, bruised since girlhood from a terrible betrayal that caused her to wall herself off from others, isolating herself from the principles of connection and keeping her from understanding the true nature of the dragons’ magic.

There are moments of intense focus during this film that are so steeped in perfect detail that it is easy at times to forget that it is animated; the richly imagined lands are colorful and feel quite real. Fight sequences – particularly those between Raya and her most menacing rival, the warrior princess Namaari (Gemma Chan) of Fang – are beautifully choreographed, suspenseful, and carry the story forward as each character comes away from each battle with added perspective. This culminates at the denouement in a surprising way, and as a result, the conclusion truly feels earned.

While perhaps not as affectively dynamic as some of Disney’s other projects, Raya and the Last Dragon sparkles with its own kind of ingenuity and spirit, with gorgeously detailed animation and an original cast of characters. If somewhat derivative, the story flows like Sisu through the river waters, and it is a wonderful reminder that sometimes, the greatest power in our possession is to let go of doubt and fear, close our eyes, and trust.

--Dana Culling