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'Raya and the Last Dragon': What the Critics Are Saying

Disney/Everett Collection
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) in 'Raya and the Last Dragon' (2021).
The first reviews are quick to praise Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina’s dynamic, as well as Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine for having "more than romance or even self-actualization on her mind."

Reviews are in for Disney’s new animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon, and the critics are generally positive.
Directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6, Winnie the Pooh) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), the new animated film introduces audiences to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons live together in harmony. When the land is threatened by sinister monster Druun, the lone warrior Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) goes on a quest to find the last surviving Dragon in order to stop the monster.
Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead a predominantly Asian-American voice cast that also includes Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran and Alan Tudyk.
For The Hollywood Reporter, Inkoo Kang asserts that the animated film should be added to "the list of 2020 and 2021 movies you’ll desperately wish you could see on the big screen." Elaborating, the critic notes that the film "occasionally crawls," but still has "urgency and momentum to spare." Kang further describes the film as "a kiddie version of The Leftovers" and is an action-packed adventure "streaked with teal and violet whimsies, punctuated by Indiana Jones-style obstacles." Though there’s a lot to the plot, Kang argues the directors do a good job at conveying the backstory "much more gracefully, through a gorgeous jewel-toned batik- and shadow puppet-inspired sequence that’s a visual highlight of the film." The critic goes on to say, "Just as impressively, it builds to a deeply moving climax whose resolution is unexpected yet consummate. This is a film that knows how to soar."
Matt Goldberg of Collider shares the same sentiments as Kang in that the film can make audiences miss the movie theater. "Disney Animation’s new movie clearly belongs in a theater simply because it’s a big quest story built around its set pieces," the critic writes. Further the critic describes Raya as "a fun romp"  that "takes a little while to get going, but once it settles into its groove it’s a propulsive journey with some thrilling action scenes." Goldberg applauds the comical dynamic between characters Raya and Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina) and credits Awkwafina for delivering a "terrific vocal performance." Speaking on the film’s theme of trust, Goldberg writes that the story proves to be rather timely as "we live in a world that is riven by divisions and we bemoan the fact that "no one trusts each other.’ He adds that the theme of trusting others hangs "an emotional core of the film" while also making for "pretty enjoyable action movie."

Brian Tallerico of Roger Ebert describes Raya as "wonderful" and an "ambitious family film that will work for all ages" while "blending imagery and mythology from several Southeast Asian cultures into its own vision." "It also contains some of the most striking imagery Disney has ever produced, dropping its characters in a world that feels both classic and new at the same time," the critic writes. The critic compliments Disney for delivering "an old-fashioned adventure movie that recalls everything from Indiana Jones to "Princess Mononoke," with the directors having the ability to "imbue every design element" with "top-notch craftsmanship." The critic also praises the film’s ability to balance the adventure with emotional stakes never getting lost, sure to spark  conversations with young viewers about "trust, forgiveness and courage." "One of the many things I love about it is how much it challenges the traditional superficiality of blockbuster animation, knowing that kids can handle more complex plots and themes than Hollywood usually gives them," the critic writes.
Of the film, Ben Travis of Empire Magazine applauds Disney for delivering a vibrant action-fantasy with a revolutionary heroine. Citing the distinctive action sequences as those "that hit harder than typical Disney fare,"  the critic also notes the fight sequences invoke "the cinematic language of Asian action cinema." Further, the critic notes "some beats feel derivative" and it could seem Awkwafina "should get more zingers," but overall the screenplay delivers a "pacy and propulsive" story, "punctuating the necessary narrative groundwork with bursts of action and excitement." Of the film’s underlying messages, the critic refers to Raya as being " perfectly timed for the Biden-Harris era." "If there’s a hero we need right now, it’s one who kicks ass with kindness."
Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times describes the film as "an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations, in which sharp new flavors and textures jostle with flat, derivative ones." With Raya serving as Disney’s first Southeast Asian heroine, Chang notes that the lead character "has more than romance or even self-actualization on her mind" when compared to other Disney heroines Moana and Elsa. "And unlike them, she doesn’t even have time for a song," the critic writes. Though he argues "the story features the usual Disney complement of cute critters and likable supporting players," the critic credits Disney’s attempt at making "an ambitious, imperfect stew of cultural inspirations" and for the Raya character being an "appealing amalgam of countless smart, unpretentious, down-to-earth action heroes before her — the kinds of characters that, as with this movie, you gravitate toward as much for their familiarity as for their novelty."

Brian Truitt of USA Today describes Raya as "an epic and sassy fantasy adventure for youngsters not yet ready for Game of Thrones." Quick to note that the film "wrestles with tonal inconsistencies," the critic also praises Raya’s "fantastic action scenes" that follow a " touching underlying narrative about the power of trust." Truitt likens the film’s "best aspects" to Moana, in particular the "comedy and its central empowering journey." The critic also notes that the film can share "plenty of familiar fantasy themes and the occasional Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars nod" but "because it’s not based on anything, the film sometimes feels remarkably original" with " amazing fight sequences," a "goofiness" that "entertains more than it distracts" and calls Awkwafina’s casting an "absolute perfection." "Watching her [Awkwafina] skip through the sky using her magic is as enjoyable as seeing Raya mosey into one of her thrilling, two-fisted, sword-swinging altercations. Together, they make 'Last Dragon' a neat new entry to the fantasy-movie canon."
Hoai-Tran Bui of SlashFilm quickly notes that the Raya’s "big selling point" is the animated film’s representation given "for decades Mulan was the only Asian face in Disney’s overwhelmingly white line-up of fairy-tale mascots." The critic notes that it’s apparent "the creative team went above and beyond to accurately represent the region in the food, the architecture, the character design, down to every little tiny detail" and "as a rarefied piece of Southeast Asian representation onscreen, it does its job." However the critic notes, "Raya‘s vision of diversity doesn’t feel as satisfying as a more culturally specific story like Pixar’s Coco, for example, which found universality within its specificity." Further, Bui argues the film "struggles with differing tones" and contains "wacky comedy." The critic concludes, "The Southeast Asian-flavored epic may not be quite the apex of representation that it wishes to be, but it gives us Disney magic of a new variety: one that is thrilling, and textured, and gives us a heroine with honeyed skin and a fascinating flaws who will be the favorite Disney Princess for a whole generation of Southeast Asian kids."

Angie Han of Mashable admits Raya’s "not-so-subtle theme of trying to find trust in a cynical world can't help but wring a few extra tears in difficult times." "There are wild chases and epic swordfights. There are moments of unexpected levity and quiet grief. (Again: very 2021.) And there are stops at all five nations, each with a distinctive enough feel to hint at a fuller world, even if all we get is a glimpse," Han writes. The critic also notes that "in between its playful shenanigans and zippy action sequences," the film "extends to the despairing a gentle reminder to hope, to heal, to reach out to others and try to become whole again." Han also compares Raya to other Disney princesses "who've veered away from classic fairy tale tropes in search of more expansive adventures on the horizon." "Raya's Rose Tico-ish mix of grounded warmth and steely determination make her a hero who's easy to root for, a solid core that anchors the film even as scenes regularly get stolen by the more colorful supporting characters around her."
Dirk Libbey of Cinemablend praises the Disney animated feature for succeeding at "being several types of features at once" including "an animated family adventure," "a moving and emotional drama" and "an absolutely kick-ass martial arts flick." Though the critic notes that "on the surface Raya and the Last Dragon may seem like a story we've all seen before," it’s "the execution of this story that makes it special." "We've never seen this done quite this way, and there's a lot here that we haven't seen from Disney, even after more than eight decades of animated filmmaking," the critic writes. The critic praises Tran for being "the perfect voice" for Raya, the "stunning" visuals and for being a film that takes action to another level.

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