Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon (/ˈr.ə/ RYE) is a 2021 American computer-animated fantasy action-adventure film produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada. The screenplay was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, based on traditional Southeast Asian cultures. It stars the voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and Sandra Oh. The film follows a warrior princess who seeks out the fabled last dragon, with hopes of restoring the dragon gem that would once again banish the plague Druun and reunite the tribes together as Kumandra.

Raya and the Last Dragon
Release poster
Directed by
  • Don Hall
  • Carlos López Estrada
Screenplay by
  • Qui Nguyen
  • Adele Lim
Story by
  • Paul Briggs
  • Don Hall
  • Adele Lim
  • Carlos López Estrada
  • Kiel Murray[1]
  • Qui Nguyen
  • John Ripa
  • Dean Wellins[2]
Produced by
  • Osnat Shurer
  • Peter Del Vecho
Starring
Cinematography
  • Rob Dressel (layout)[3]
  • Adolph Lusinsky (lighting)[3]
Edited by
  • Fabienne Rawley[4]
  • Shannon Stein[4]
Music byJames Newton Howard
Production
companies
Distributed byWalt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release date
  • March 5, 2021 (2021-03-05) (United States)
Running time
107 minutes[5]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$100 million+
Box office$122.6 million

Raya and the Last Dragon was theatrically released in the United States on March 5, 2021, by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in standard 2D, 3D, Dolby Cinema, and IMAX formats. The film was also simultaneously available on Disney+ Premier Access as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on theatrical releases. In July 2021, it became the second most viewed streaming title behind Netflix's fifth season of Lucifer shortly after its premium access run.

As of August 2021, it has grossed over $122 million worldwide and received positive reviews from critics, who praised the animation, visuals, action sequences, characters, musical score, voice acting, story, and messages, though it drew some criticism for the limited Southeast Asian representation among the film's voice cast.

Plot

The prosperous land of Kumandra is ravaged by the Druun, threatening evil spirits that turn people and dragons to stone. Sisu, the last dragon, concentrates her magic into a gem and banishes the Druun, reviving Kumandra's people but not the dragons. A power struggle for the gem divides Kumandra's people into five tribes, based on their placement along a dragon-shaped river: Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail.[6] Heart ends up holding the gem.

Five hundred years later, Chief Benja of the Heart tribe trains his daughter Raya to protect the gem. Firmly believing that the tribes can be united once again, Benja holds a feast for the leadership of all five tribes. During the feast, Raya befriends Namaari, the daughter of Chief Virana of the Fang tribe, who gives Raya a dragon pendant as a gift and tells her of a legend that the dragon Sisu still exists and can be summoned. Trusting her, Raya shows Namaari the location of the gem, but she betrays Raya as part of a plot to help Fang steal it. Alerted to the attack, Benja and the other tribes arrive at the scene and start fighting over the gem, which gets broken in the scuffle. As each tribe steals a piece of the gem, the Druun reawaken and overtake Heart and its people before spreading throughout the rest of Kumandra. Observing that the Druun avoid water, Benja saves Raya by throwing her into the river; she watches him get engulfed and petrified by the Druun.

For the next six years, Raya treks across Kumandra searching for Sisu, to get her to create another gem and banish the Druun once more. She manages to summon Sisu at a shipwreck in Tail, but Sisu admits that she did not create the gem: she wielded it on behalf of her four siblings, who each contributed their magic to the gem. Raya resolves to take back the four stolen pieces of the gem, in order to reassemble it and use it against the Druun.

Raya and Sisu travel through Tail, Talon, and Spine, reclaiming gem pieces and meeting new friends along the way: the young restaurateur Boun, the con artist baby Little Noi, and the warrior Tong, all of whom have lost loved ones to the Druun. Namaari pursues her, hoping to gain the gem shards for the Fang tribe. Not fully trusting their new companions, Raya insists Sisu remain disguised as a human; but Sisu reveals herself in order to save Raya from Namaari at Spine.

At Fang, Sisu convinces Raya to try to ally with Namaari rather than stealing the final piece. Raya returns the dragon pendant she received from Namaari years ago as a gesture of trust. Namaari, torn by her responsibility to save Fang's reputation and her wish to help defeat the Druun, threatens them with a crossbow. Sisu attempts to calm Namaari, but Raya attacks with her sword; the scuffle causes Namaari's crossbow to fire, killing Sisu.

Sisu's death causes water to disappear from Fang's protective canal, allowing the Druun to overrun the realm. Raya pursues Namaari, whom she finds grieving the petrification of her mother. The two fight while Raya's companions evacuate the people of Fang using the gem pieces. Raya beats Namaari and prepares to kill her, but stops upon realizing her own role in Sisu's death due to her inability to trust others; she heads off to aid her friends instead. Namaari follows Raya with Fang’s gem piece and saves Raya's pet Tuk Tuk from the Druun, earning Raya's forgiveness. As the Druun gain on her group, Raya remembers how trust allowed Sisu to save the world before. She urges the others to unite and reassemble the gem, showing her faith in Namaari by handing over her piece and allowing the Druun to petrify her. The rest follow suit, and Namaari assembles the gem before the Druun petrify her as well. The Druun are vanquished shortly following the reassembly of the dragon gem, with Sisu revived alongside all the victims of the Druun. The group reunites with all their lost loved ones, and the land of Kumandra is reunited.

Voice cast

  • Kelly Marie Tran as Raya,[7] the fierce and courageous warrior princess of Heart who has been training to become a Guardian of the Dragon Gem. To restore peace to Kumandra, she embarks on a search for the last dragon.[6]
  • Awkwafina as Sisu,[8] the last dragon in existence. She has a wacky and somewhat insecure personality, but she is also brave, kind and wise.[9]
  • Izaac Wang as Boun,[10] a charismatic 10-year-old entrepreneur and owner of the "Shrimporium", a boat restaurant in Tail, who lost his family to the Druun[11]
  • Gemma Chan as Namaari, the warrior princess of Fang and Raya's rival[12]
  • Daniel Dae Kim as Chief Benja, the leader of Heart and Raya's father[15]
  • Benedict Wong as Tong, a formidable, towering, but kind-hearted warrior from Spine who lost his family and fellow villagers to the Druun[15]
  • Sandra Oh as Virana, Namaari's mother and the chieftess of Fang[14]
  • Thalia Tran as Little Noi, an infant con artist from Talon who lost her mother to the Druun[15]
  • Lucille Soong as Dang Hu, the chieftess of Talon[16]
  • Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, Raya's best friend and trusty steed that is a mix of an armadillo and a pill bug[16]

Additionally, Dichen Lachman voices both General Atitaya of Fang and a warrior from Spine; Patti Harrison voices the chief of Tail who was later found dead in her own booby trap;[17] Dumbfoundead voices Chai, a flower guy; Sung Kang voices Dang Hai, the former chief of Talon who became a victim of the Druun causing Dang Hu to succeed him; Sierra Katow voices both a Talon merchant and a Fang officer; Ross Butler voices the chief of Spine; François Chau voices Wahn; and Gordon Ip and Paul Yen voice Talon merchants that demand payment from Sisu.[15][18]

Production

Development

In October 2018, Deadline Hollywood reported that Disney was developing a fantasy animated film. They disclosed that it would be written by Adele Lim and produced by Osnat Shurer with additional directorial debuts by Paul Briggs and Dean Wellins, most of them have previous involvement in other Disney movies including Frozen (2013), Moana (2016), Zootopia (2016). The film was untitled at the time as part of a bigger development secrecy in timeline and characters, but its employment details hinted that it would involve a female protagonist with Asian materials.[19] In August 2019, Disney officially announced the film during their D23 Expo Walt Disney Animation Studios' presentation panel. They also revealed the casting of Cassie Steele as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu.[20][21]

In August 2020, Disney reportedly replaced several crew members. Don Hall, director of Winnie the Pooh (2011) and Big Hero 6 (2014), and Carlos López Estrada, who had joined Disney Animation in 2019, were now taking over the reins as directors at an unexpected invitation upon impressed by her directorial work on comedy-drama film Blindspotting (2018); subsequently, Briggs joined John Ripa as one of the screenwriters, having been demoted from his initial position as co-director.[22] In addition, Qui Nguyen joined Lim as co-writer and Peter Del Vecho joined Shurer as producer.[23][24][25] Steele was also replaced by Kelly Marie Tran due to large-scale shifts in characteristics and plotline. Shurer remarked that the cast must embody the same spirits as the character, and how Tran was better suited for the role.[26] According to Hall, they recast the role since Raya was originally a "stoic loner," but then the team began to infuse her with elements of "levity" and "swagger" similar to the character of Star-Lord in Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).[27] The Hollywood Reporter reviewed that Tran was selected for her "lightness and buoyancy, but also badassery".[27] Tran had to go through a process of learning to trust the production team, since she had participated in the original round of auditions for Raya, without success. By January 2020, when she stepped into the role formerly occupied by Steele, she was well aware that Disney Animation had already rejected her and replaced another actress.[28]

Disney's casting choices on Raya and the Last Dragon were kept secret from the cast members themselves (because Disney hired each of them separately and had them record their lines separately); however, they accidentally discovered each other's involvement before Disney officially revealed the cast.[29]

The film is set in a fantasy land called Kumandra, inspired by the Southeast Asian cultures of Brunei, Singapore, Laos, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.[30] To do background research, the filmmakers and production team traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos.[31] The filmmakers formed the Southeast Asia Story Trust, a collective of cultural consultants for the film which included Dr. Steve Arounsack, an associate professor of Lao Anthropology at California State University, Stanislaus.[32] Thai artist Fawn Veerasunthorn served as the head of story for the film.[33]

Regarding the protagonist's name, the crew browsed through dozens of suggestions recommended by experts from its Southeast Asia Story Trust in search of the right one; screenwriter Adele Lim had an emotional reaction when she first heard the name "Raya", which means "celebration" in Malay.[32] To prevent further spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, like much of the film industry, the crew practiced social distancing, working from home using digital communization software, notably Zoom.[34]

Animation

The film portrays a combination of cultures referenced across Southeast Asia; Raya's hat is identical to the Philippines's traditional headgear, while her fighting techniques come from Malaysia and Indonesia's battle tradition.[35] Water is one of the central elements as it is used to illustrate Raya's emotional growth. Smoothly colored bodies of water represent moments where Raya feels close to those around her, while distrust is represented by bodies water colored with higher contrast that dramatizes shadows and silhouettes.[36] Raya's costume design, hairstyle, and equipment are also based on her fighting ability added with traditional Southeast Asian garments.[32]

The production of the film was supervised by executive producer Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer of Disney Animation. Notably, Kelsey Hurley was the supervisor of an all-female leadership team with the help of associate technical supervisors Gabriela Hernandez and Shweta Viswanathan. They oversaw the flow of technical resources and assistances used:[37] editing and rendering software programs such as Maya, Houdini, and Nuke as well as programming languages like Python and C++.[38]

Music

James Newton Howard composed the score for Raya and the Last Dragon.[39] The film marks the fourth time he has scored an animated film by Walt Disney Animation Studios, having previously composed for Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet.[40][41] The score was released on February 26, 2021. Jhené Aiko wrote and performed a song for the end-credits, titled "Lead the Way".[42][43]

On March 2, 2021, Disney Studios Philippines announced that Filipina singer KZ Tandingan would be singing Disney's first-ever Filipino-language song, titled "Gabay",[44] which means "guide" in English. The track, the Filipino version of "Lead the Way," would be part of the film's soundtrack. Allie Benedicto, studio marketing head of Disney Philippines said that the song "demonstrates our commitment to work with local creative talents to tell our stories in a locally relevant manner."[45] In a press release, KZ Tandingan expressed her gratitude and pride to be singing in her native language as well as singing in a Disney film. She conveyed liking of its messages of trust, coming together and uniting to change the world when one feels weak and alone.[46]

Release

Theatrical and streaming

Raya and the Last Dragon was originally scheduled to be released in the United States on November 25, 2020.[47] However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film's release was delayed to March 12, 2021.[48] On December 10, 2020, as part of Disney's Investor Day presentation, it was announced that the film's theatrical release date was pushed up by a week to March 5, 2021, the same applied to its simultaneous release on Disney+ Premier Access.[49] Raya and the Last Dragon was available for purchase through Premier Access until June 4, 2021[50] it was available for free to all subscribers as of April 23 in Latin America,[51] and as of June 4 in other countries.[52] In theaters, the film was accompanied by a short film, Us Again.[53]

Home media

Raya and the Last Dragon was released on Digital HD by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment on April 2, 2021, with DVD, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD Blu-ray releases on the following May 18.[54] The digital release also included Us Again.[55] Additionally, bonus features bundled to its Blu-ray release include "An Introduction to Us Again", a behind-the-scenes look of the short, Us Again; "Taste of Raya", a virtual Southeast Asian dining; "Raya: Bringing It Home", an inside look on how the animators worked at home; "Martial Artists", a lesson on the martial art forms and weapons used in the film where Nguyen and Arounsack talked about the inspiration on the film's action; "We are Kumandra", the cultural influences of the film from the Southeast Asia Story Trust; outtakes from the cast; facts and easter eggs; Ripa's experience while working on the storyboard; and multiple deleted scenes.[56][57]

Reception

Box office

As of August 1, 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon has grossed $54.7 million in the United States and Canada, and $67.9 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $122.6 million.[58][59]

In the United States and Canada, the film was released alongside Chaos Walking and Boogie,[60][61] and was initially projected to gross an estimated $6-$7 million from 2,045 theaters in its opening weekend.[62] However, after making $2.5 million on its first day, due to the re-opening of New York City theaters, weekend estimates were raised to $8.3 million.[63] It went on to debut to $8.5 million,[64] topping the box office.[65][66][67] Three theater chains, Cinemark and Harkins in the United States alongside Cineplex in Canada, initially did not run the film after declining Disney's rental terms (Cinemark would later reach a deal with Disney and start running the film in its tenth week of release),[68] which led to Raya and the Last Dragon failing to match the opening weekend grosses of The Croods: A New Age and Tom & Jerry,[69] two other animated films released amid the pandemic. However, the film's performance improved on the next weeks, therefore matching and eventually surpassing Tom & Jerry's box office numbers. The film made $5.5 million in its second weekend and $5.2 million in its third, remaining atop the box office.[70][71]

Streaming

In its first three days in the week of March 1, Raya And The Last Dragon was watched for 355 million minutes and placed No. 4 for the week among movies.[72] The film was made available Disney+ without any additional cost on June 4, 2021, worldwide; it was the second-most viewed streaming title following after Netflix's Lucifer.[73] Raya and the Last Dragon was viewed approximately 1.1 billion minutes from May 31–June 6, a significant increase for the film (and any streaming title), which previously had a total of 115 million viewing minutes a week prior when it was still only available for $30 as a premium title.[72]

Critical response

Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 95% of 277 critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.70/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Another gorgeously animated, skillfully voiced entry in the Disney canon, Raya and the Last Dragon continues the studio's increased representation while reaffirming that its classic formula is just as reliable as ever."[74] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 75 out of 100 based on 46 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[75] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported 92% of audience members gave it a positive score, with 78% saying they would definitely recommend it.[63]

Writing for IndieWire, Kate Erbland gave the film a grade of B+ and said, "As the Disney princess brand has continued to evolve, from the introduction of newbies like Moana to the continuing popularity of classics like Tiana and Mulan, Raya and the Last Dragon is a sterling example of how the trope still has room to grow—while proving that some of the original ingredients can still deliver the goods."[76] While praising the film's world-building and attention to detail, Shirley Li of The Atlantic opined that subordinating the story to world building muddied the film's message.[77] Besides complimenting the film's animation, the San Francisco Chronicle's Julie Tremaine praised the film's characterization of Tran's character as a powerful woman and "regular person, with wits and heart, trying to make a difference" rather than a character endowed with special powers or one needing a prince to save her.[78] David Fear of Rolling Stone gave the film 3.5/5 stars and praised Tran and Awkwafina's vocal performances, saying: "...while the action-set pieces and stand-offs and Raya–ders of the Lost Ark sequences are indeed thrilling, it's the buddy-comedy aspect that actually makes the movie come alive."[79] Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com noted his fascination for the exceptional background details that much of the film industry would ignore.[80] Nguyen Le of AwardsWatch reviews the film positively, although he hopes the film "will give way to a fully Vietnamese, or Thai, or Indonesian, feature down the line — in both vision and casting."[81] Sandie Angulo Chen of Common Sense Media appraised it a positive rating of 4/5 referencing to its empowering content.[82] Scott Mendelson Of Forbes wrote positively on the film's vibrant-detailed animation and dramatic humor, he was also amazed by its ability to achieve "emotional stakes" from the audience without further focusing on the average body count.[83]

The film was criticized for the lack of Southeast Asian representation in the cast, as the film's setting is a fictional land that represents Southeast Asia.[84] Most of the cast are of East Asian heritage, with the exception of K. Tran, Butler, T. Tran, Wang and Harrison.[85][86] A. Felicia Wade of DiscussingFilm pointed this out in her review, commenting on the disheartening lack of accurate representation in the vocal cast and the fact that it "misses the mark at its core."[87] Justin Chang of NPR admired its animation and humor, but he complained the plotline was over-detailed.[88] The unavailability of Disney+ internationally in a majority of Southeast Asian regions was also criticized for its representation, similar to the cast.[89]

Future

K. Tran said that she would "absolutely be interested" in reprising her role as Raya, and stated that she wanted a lesbian relationship between Raya and Namaari.[90][91]

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