Raya and the Last Dragon, by Cameron J. Czaja

After years of sequels and a year absent of any Disney animated films, we now
have a completely original Disney animated film, which is Raya and the Last
Dragon
. This was a film that was supposed to be released last year but due to the
ongoing pandemic, it was delayed to this year. Normally, I would get bothered
by a delayed release but after an entire turn of the calendar of hearing films get delayed indefinitely,
I’m somewhat used to it. Hopefully that what won’t be the case anymore soon, but I’m
fortunate that Raya and the Last Dragon was delayed for a few months rather than
a full year like some other films.

When I first watched the teaser trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon, I was skeptical
but also excited for the film because it was, as I said earlier, a completely
new Disney animated film which was something that we haven’t gotten in quite
some time. However, after watching the full trailer, I was now only skeptical due to
how cringy the humor and certain dialogue was despite the fact that it was only the
trailer. After watching the trailer again, I had to remind myself that movie previews
often lie and don’t present the narrative properly. Was that the case for this film?
Let’s find out.

In Raya and the Last Dragon, we follow Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a princess who
lives in the fictional land of Kumandra. Kumandra was once a land thriving with
dragons and everyone lived a calm and peaceful life until an evil entity known as
the Drunn roamed across the land turning living things into stone when they came in
contact with it. With no other choice, the dragons of Kumandra used their
power to form an orb and used it to repel the Drunn. This caused everyone
who turned to stone to become flesh again, however this also caused the dragons to turn into
stone in return. In the aftermath of this, the citizens of Kumandra turned against
each other and formed five tribes based off the body of a dragon which consists of
Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail. Five hundred years later Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who is the chief of Kumandra’s Heart Land and Raya’s father, hosts a
gathering with the other leaders in hopes that they can reach an agreement to unite as
one again. During the gathering, Raya befriends Namaari (Jona Xiao) who is the
daughter of chieftess of the Fang land. After becoming friends, Raya shows
Namaari the location of the orb formed by the dragons and states how her family
has been guarding it and that she is the new guardian of the orb. This leads
Namaari to betray Raya and try and steal the orb for her tribe. Soon the other
tribes try to intervene and take the orb for themselves, which then breaks when
it falls to the ground, dividing the orb into five pieces. After it breaks the Drunn
resurfaces and begin multiplying turning everyone in its path into stone again including
Raya’s father. Six years later Raya begins looking for a dragon who goes by Sisu
(Awkwafina). Sisu is one of the dragons who helped create the orb and is rumored
to still be alive at the end of an unknown river. Raya hopes to find Sisu so that she
can help her collect the missing pieces of the orb in order to bring back not only
her old life but her father as well.

So, good news and bad news after watching Raya and the Last Dragon: the bad
news is that some of the dialogue and humor that didn’t sit too well with me is
present in the film; the good news, however, is that Raya and the film did
exceed my expectations in more ways that I could have imagined. Granted, it’s not
a new Disney classic compared to other Disney animated films we got this past
decade, but it’s pretty close.

There’s a lot to appreciate in Raya and the Last Dragon. From the world of
Kumandra itself, the visuals, and the songless music, which is rare
for a Disney Princess film. However, my main focus in this review is to point out
the several themes that I noticed when I was watching it, such as the message of
female empowerment and the Catholic allegories. Both of those themes have been
on my mind ever since I watched this film and it’s something that I hope will be
discussed when time passes.

One of the things I was curious about when I saw Raya and the Last Dragon is how
they would handle the female empowerment message. I say that because
Hollywood recently has a tendency to exploit female empowerment in films if there is a female lead. Just to be clear, though, I’m not saying I don’t
care for that theme whatsoever, but after Ghostbusters (2016) and Charlie’s Angels
(2019), I’m a bit skeptical whenever there’s a female protagonist in a mainstream
film that caters to a specific female audience. Rest assured, Raya and the Last
Dragon
finds a way to bring that message forward without feeling forced and/or
making it feel like a distraction from the narrative. What helps is how the film itself is
focused on the conflict and how Raya will do anything to resolve it. Not only
that, but the film lacks any romantic interest whatsoever, which is something I liked
because that’s something Disney has a tendency of doing whenever they
have a female lead in a movie. Hopefully this will become a habit for future
Disney projects down the road.

Aside from the theme of female empowerment, there were many Catholic allegories
in Raya and the Last Dragon that I noticed right away. Ever since I joined
The Legionnaire over a year ago, I became more aware of Catholic/Christian details
within any film I watch. When I started watching this film, however, I became
more observant compared to other films recently. Maybe it has to do with the fact
that as I’m writing this review in the middle of Lent and certain references in the
film remind me of that season, such as turning to stone (i.e. Ash
Wednesday). There is also the fall and resurrection of a character. Another allegory is
the main conflict itself, which is the Drunn. I saw these creatures as a manifestation
of sin itself and much like the characters whenever they come in contact
with these creatures, we become a different person whenever we sin. I’m not sure
if I would’ve noticed these themes if it wasn’t Lent right now, though knowing
myself, I think I would’ve seen them even if this was released when it was
supposed on its original date.

Even though I did enjoy Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s not my new favorite
Disney animated film compared to ones released this past decade such as Wreck-It
Ralph
(2012), Big Hero 6 (2014), and Moana (2016), but it’s close. It’s definitely better than the
last one, which was Frozen II (2019), which is not saying much because in retrospect it’s
not that good of a film. Also, there’s a lot more Catholic themes I could’ve brought
up in this review and I would’ve if it was a bad film. However, I’ll let you figure it out
because this is something worth checking out if you get the chance to do so.

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