As the pandemic continues to linger, the state of seeing big releases in movie theaters remains in purgatory. COVID-19 case numbers are going down, seemingly causing box office numbers to go up to the point that theaters are beginning to show signs of a pulse, albeit not a strong one. Studios are still keeping a close eye on the pandemic on a week-to-week basis with movie dates changing at a moderate pace. When we will see blockbuster movies exclusively on the big screen rather than accompanied by same-day releases on streaming services at no extra cost (like Warner Brothers and HBO Max), nobody knows. But Disney, as they did with their Mulan remake, is dropping Raya and the Last Dragon not only in theaters, but also on Premier Access on Disney+ this Friday for $30, giving families the option to watch it at home. Not only is Raya and the Last Dragon the first good movie of 2021, but it’s also one of the best animated movies from Disney in recent memory.
Taking place in a world known as Kumandra, which is inspired by Southeast Asia cultures, Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a lone warrior princess, Raya, tracking down the last dragon in the world. Raya needs the dragon in order to take down the Druun, an evil force that nearly destroyed the world 500 years ago. The Druun would have prevailed if not for the dragons sacrificing themselves to prevent it. Sure, Raya’s journey from her younger days to tracking down the last dragon and the aftermath has some conventional storytelling packaged in there like most family animated movies. However, how the story unfolds from its small beginnings to its thrillingly emotional climax is a beautiful, memorable journey across another magical world created by Disney. And the way Disney curated this and their respect for its cultural influences deserves kudos.
Part of what makes Raya and the Last Dragon special, other than its Grade-A animation and thrilling action (more than usual in an animated film), is its large cast of memorable characters and the great voices behind them. While Kelly Marie Tran’s voicing of Raya is wonderful, it’s Awkwafina as the last dragon, Sisu, that truly shines. Awkwafina voicing a goofy blue water dragon feels like a match made in heaven, given the actress’s wonderful personality, which is on full display as she delivers the best lines and laughs in the film. Other characters in smaller roles help keep things in Raya fresh (and at a tight pace) as the warrior princess and blue dragon roam the lands. From Gemma Chan voicing a warrior princess as the enemy of Raya to Sandra Oh and Benedict Wong voicing leaders of other regions of Kumandra and Alan Tudyk as Raya’s armadillo-like animal companion (adding another great animated Disney animal sidekick to their long list of previous great ones), each one of these characters is distinct in their roles and dialogue, and that helps make for the story at hand. There is also a toddler, voiced by Thalia Tran, who has one standout scene that adds to how funny this movie is at times.
What directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting), along with writers Qui Nguyen (The Society) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) have come up with here is truly a gem. There is much to appreciate from all angles of this hero’s journey, already making a case to be one of the best animated movies of the year.
If you have a chance to see Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters while being socially distant and masked up, this movie deserves your ticket purchase. But if you and the family would rather stay in the comfort of your home and pay $30, I would recommend that as well. Either way, don’t miss it.