‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Soars to New Heights

A considerate college presentation and a film full of heart show that Disney magic is still alive in 2021




“Do not be afraid. Take chances and trust your instincts,” John Ripa, Disney animator and co-director of the Walt Disney Animated Studios’ latest film “Raya and the Last Dragon,” told college students ahead of the movie’s March 5 premiere. On Feb. 24, Ripa Paul Briggs, a fellow co-director and Disney animator,  hosted the Zoom-exclusive event “Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ College Filmmaker Presentation” for college students across the globe.

To promote the newest Disney princess film in an educational and motivational light, Briggs and Ripa shared a series of behind-the-scenes videos, photographs from research journeys and discoveries made during the transition from page to screen all while inviting attendees into the world of Kumandra, the fantastical setting of “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Kumandra, once a prosperous land where dragons and humans lived together in harmony, finds itself divided into distrusting territories after the evil spirits of the Druun wreck havoc and take the dragons with them. Carrying on with her father’s legacy after a shocking betrayal, Raya, voiced by Star Wars’ Kelly Marie Tran, departs on a quest throughout the five kingdoms to seek out the rumored last dragon, a water dragon named Sisu voiced by Awkwafina, and restore Kumandra and humanity to their former glory. 

Disney Beginnings

Briggs and Ripa are no strangers to the Disney animated world. Both have worked at the House of Mouse for over 25 years. Briggs started out as an intern for the studio after attending Kansas City Art Institute and had his first assistant position in the visual effects department for “Mulan,” the 1998 Disney Renaissance film that remains one of Briggs’ favorites. Eventually, Briggs found his footing as a storyboard artist and went on to become head of story on 2013’s “Frozen” and “Big Hero 6,” released the following year. 

The movie also doesn’t feel like a typical Disney princess movie for all the right reasons.

On the other hand, Ripa attended the California Institute of the Arts to study animation after receiving his bachelor of arts in illustration at a university in Buffalo, New York. His first major motion picture role was as an animation assistant on the 1994 Oscar-winning film “The Lion King.” Later in his career, he became a lead storyboard artist on 2016’s “Zootopia” and co-head of story on “Moana.”

Research & Controversy

Briggs and Ripa emphasized the importance of researching the culture and scenery of Southeast Asia that inspired the film’s creation. The two co-directors visited countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam to immerse themselves in each culture. They observed daily life, photographed, sketched and interviewed knowledgeable people on the history of traditions and customs of each place. They also sought out experts like visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack who has a Ph.D. in ecology, as well as architects, linguists and choreographers in order to depict the most respectful and authentic love letter to Southeast Asia on the big screen. 

Interestingly enough, even before its release, the film has faced its fair share of controversy, including how a Southeast Asia-centric film has a cast composed of mainly East Asian actors, save for Tran, and a general fear of overgeneralizing Southeast Asian culture. Plus, the movie has made headlines for its possible queer-coded themes

Impacts of COVID-19

That isn’t to say that controversy and progress can’t coexist. Aside from the debut of Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess, the presentation also highlighted the transition from working in-person to at home on a Disney animated feature film. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 a year ago, “Raya and the Last Dragon” was just beginning production as employees were sent home and forced to work remotely. Despite Briggs’ original concerns that working at home would impact animation, known as “the most collaborative art form,” Disney’s technology team worked closely with the voice actors and 450 artists on the team to be able to record and animate as smoothly as possible, all from the comfort of everyone’s homes. 

Speaking of the impacts of the pandemic, due to its time of release, Disney has generated more controversy for using “Raya and the Last Dragon” to experiment with the streaming world by releasing the animated film in select theaters and simultaneously on Disney+ with Premier Access for $30. 

It might not be the animation studio’s magnum opus, but it certainly is a worthy installment in the Disney Animated Studios’ library. 


In terms of the movie itself, as always, the animation is unbelievable. Sometimes it requires a double-take to realize that one isn’t watching live-action footage of a river or wildlife but instead a shot that was painstakingly computer generated. In addition to the mystical score by Academy Award-nominated James Newton Howard, the film introduces a rich and captivating world with enough detail to garner repeat viewings for animation lovers. 

The movie also doesn’t feel like a typical Disney princess movie for all the right reasons. The film makes up for a lack of musical numbers with intense fight choreography worthy of a big-budget action film. This is most likely thanks in part to Co-Director Carlos López Estrada, who made his feature film directorial debut in the live-action sphere with Daveed Diggs’ criminally underrated “Blindspotting.” I was personally most invested in the fights involving warrior princess Raya and her enemy from the Fang territory, Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), due to the chemistry and enticing emotional intensity between the two. 

The film has an aesthetic similar to shows like “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which is why I applaud its ambition, but I wish at times that it were a very high quality serialized show instead of a feature film under two hours. The movie tries to cover a lot of ground with its found-family trope and worldbuilding, and while it hits the necessary emotional notes, one can’t help but wish that the audience got to spend more time in these colorful regions or got to know the characters better. The pacing was a little too fast to feel fully immersed in the world. While on the topic of writing, because of this ancient world vibe, some of the modern language, like references to school group projects or jokes involving butts, felt a bit jarring as well. 

Overall, the movie fulfills its purpose of being an entertaining and magical journey with the Disney signature that offers potential for diverse storytelling in the company’s future. It might not be the animation studio’s magnum opus, but it certainly is a worthy installment in the Disney Animated Studios’ library. 

Disney fans and animation buffs alike can check out Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” playing in select theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access now.