Walt Disney Animation Studios has been having one of the biggest comebacks in animation history. After suffering a bit in the animation scene in the 2000s, they came back in full force in the next decade with films like "The Princess and the Frog", "Tangled", "Wreck-It Ralph", "Frozen", "Big Hero 6", "Zootopia", and "Moana". Now to add to their prestigious animated library is their first new animated film of the 2020s, "Raya and the Last Dragon". Their first original film in almost five years, this film really shows why they can make animated films like no other and tell stories that can still rivet an audience all these years later. I was very excited to see this film, but I was not expecting a lot of surprises to be found here and I found myself riveted from start to finish.
The world of Kumandra is divided. After prospering for many years, it fell victim to evil spirits called the Druun who have turned innocent people into stone and have taken all the dragons along with it except for one. This last dragon created a powerful orb that eventually leads to the people splitting into five different kingdoms along the kingdom's river called Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon. Heart ends up possessing the orb before an incident leads to it shattering and people of each kingdom taking a piece of it to help protect themselves from the Druun. Six years later, the warrior princess of Heart, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is on a search for the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). She eventually finds her at the end of the last river in the kingdom of Tail. Hoping to reunite the last few pieces of the orb to bring back the fallen, Raya and Sisu set off on an epic quest to find the pieces to help bring the people who turned into stone (which includes Raya's father) back to life before the princess of Fang, Namaari (Gemma Chan) who had betrayed Raya in the past, finds them to help benefit her kingdom.
I remember being at the D23 conference in 2019 when this film was announced and I haven't been this excited for an animated film in quite some time. Even when the pandemic started and the film got pushed back from November 2020 to March 2021, I was still eagerly awaiting what Walt Disney Animation Studios had in store for this film. Needless to say, this is a film where the wait paid off. I was quite astonished by how mature and emotionally riveting this film was which is what easily helped drive the story into being great. It does start off on an uneven note with the beginning feeling a bit unstable due to its exposition, though it quickly redeems itself once Raya goes on her journey to find Sisu and the last pieces of the orb. The film has so much energy and pace with its animated action and sense of adventure that reminded me of an "Indiana Jones" film and it never feels dull for one bit. It also helps that the film isn't a musical and I'm very glad it isn't because it doesn't really need to be. The thing that really did surprise me about the story was just how emotionally riveting it was. There's a sense of sadness that has taken over this world and I found that's what really helped drive the film and push it to greatness especially with its use of visual storytelling with one scene standing out taking place in the kingdom of Spine that without spoiling really made me feel sad. The emotions are earned in this film and it worked spectacularly well as the film builds to a riveting climax where the emotions truly hit hard. As far as the animation goes, it's truly breathtaking. Walt Disney Animation Studios has seriously been stepping up their game when it comes to their animation in each passing film and this is one of their finest computer-animated films to date. The five kingdoms are truly a sight to behold and they truly had a lot of atmosphere to them which makes the emotional core even stronger. Where the animation truly succeeds though is the really awesome action. This film has the blood of other animation action films like "Mulan" and "Kung Fu Panda" and you can see their influence here. It's so riveting and exciting that it keeps you on the edge of your seat as you watch the characters battle opponents hoping they'll succeed. There's even a time where one of the punches looked so painful that I actually flinched while watching it. Then there are the characters who are all simply amazing. Raya is a fantastic protagonist and I love how the film makes her very strong so she can stand her ground against enemies while also showing that she has flaws that do stand out. She's an excellent character and I think Kelly Marie Tran's performance is what truly pushes it to greatness. This is the role she was born to play and I'm so happy the team at Disney Animation gave her the chance to shine here. I also thought Sisu was a lot of fun with Awkwafina giving her a goofy charm yet lovable personality that doesn't come off as annoying. She has a lot of influence from Disney's other animated comic relief characters like the Genie from "Aladdin" and Mushu from "Mulan". Even other characters that Raya encounters along the way are fun and have a lot of personalities and I love how the filmmakers gave all of them something that helped tie them together. I think this connection is something audiences can really relate to. I also found Namaari a good antagonist as well who is trying to do what's right for her kingdom and most importantly, her mother. She really works as a threat in this film.
All in all, "Raya and the Last Dragon" is a fantastic animated film. The story is emotionally riveting and never dull, the animation is gorgeous and action-packed, and the characters are a lot of fun and have a lot of charm to them. This is easily another winning film from Walt Disney Animation Studios and I highly recommend watching it when you have the chance. It really continues to show that they truly have not lost their magic when it comes to animation.