Home > Reviews > RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – James Newton Howard

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON – James Newton Howard

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The first of Disney’s two animated films scheduled to be released in 2021, Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantasy adventure set in an alternate-reality version of Southeast Asia. In this universe, humans have been hunted by creatures called druuns for generations, but are now protected by a magical orb created by dragons – with the caveat being that the dragons all turned to stone once they created the orb. Raya is the daughter of Benja, the powerful tribal chief who guards the orb, but during a feast celebration Raya is tricked into revealing the location of the orb to the daughter of a different tribal leader, who is jealous of Benja’s power. The resulting fight leads to the orb being almost destroyed, and the threat of the druuns returning. Wanting to make amends and save her people, Raya sets off on a quest to locate Sisu, the mythical last dragon, and the only one which did not turn to stone, in the hope that it can help create a new orb. The film was directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, and features a voice cast of almost entirely East Asian and Southeast Asian actors, including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and Sandra Oh.

For a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s James Newton Howard was the go-to composer for Disney animated action adventures, him having written scores such as Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet. Howard has only scored one animated film since then – Gnomeo and Juliet in 2011 – but has been very successful with his scores for several Disney-adjacent live-action remakes and spinoffs, including Snow White and Huntsman and Maleficent. Raya and the Last Dragon is a score very much in the mold of those; it’s an expansive, action-packed, emotion-filled adventure score which blends a traditional symphonic palette with an unusually large amount of electronica, but succeeds admirably in creating an appropriate tone and feel for this mysterious, magical world.

After a fairly generic and horrifically auto-tuned pop song in “Lead the Way,” written and performed by Jhené Aiko, the score begins with the “Prologue,” the sound of which will likely come as a surprise to many. Many of the textures Howard uses to capture the sound of Raya’s world are unexpectedly electronic, and feature a number of layered synth lines, unusual-processed samples, dance-like rhythms, and ‘foreign-sounding’ jangling percussion ideas which may be East Asian, but also may have simply been chosen for their timbre; there might be a ram’s horn, there might be a Jew’s harp, there might be some type of koto zither. It’s all sort of non-specific and generically ‘exotic,’ which is a good thing on this occasion as it doesn’t place Raya’s world in any one musical location as we know it. There’s a tribal choir too, phrased with open voices which make it sound a little like James Horner’s choir from Avatar, as well as a rowdy set of orchestral action rhythms which foreshadow the action later in the score.

Despite being introduced subtly in the opening cue, the first real performance of Raya’s Theme comes in “Young Raya and Namaari,” which underscores the scene where young Raya befriends the daughter of a different tribal leader, unaware that her choice of companions will have devastating consequences. Raya’s Theme is optimistic, perhaps a little naïve, but imbued with warmth and heart as befits her status as the protagonist and hero of the story. The loveliest statement here comes at the 1:00 mark – strings backed with magical chimes – but the cue is easily adaptable to different emotional settings, as the rest of the score shows.

This cue leads into the first main action cue, “Betrayed,” for the scene where Raya’s tribal enemies attempt to steal the orb of protection, but break it in the process – the catalyst for the quest. Howard’s action music here is powerful and emphatic, and very much in the classic 1990s style of scores like Waterworld, The Postman, and his other aforementioned Disney action efforts. These bold orchestral strokes are often accompanied by bubbling electronic textures and choral outbursts; the electronic textures may ‘ruin’ the music for some people as they do take the focus away from the orchestral line, but I personally think they give the score a fascinating texture that is appropriate for the alien sonic world Howard is creating.

Thereafter the score follows Raya on her journey to find the last dragon, fix the orb, and reunite the various warring tribes to stand against the threat of the druuns. Considering that Raya visits the homelands of each of the different tribes on her journey – Fang, Tail, Spine, and Talon, as well as her own Heart tribe – I was trying to determine whether Howard tried to create a different tonal palette for each tribe, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead, Howard concentrates solely on Raya’s journey, placing her theme at the heart of the story, surrounding it with lots of evocative textures, and weaving it into the different action sequences as appropriate.

The one exception to this is the theme that first emerges in “Enter the Dragon,” which is the theme for Sisu, the juvenile dragon that Raya finds and befriends, and who turns out to be the last of her kind. Sisu’s theme is playful, inquisitive, and at times a little comical, as befits her youth, with a central three-note motif that bounces around with energy and curious charm. Its subsequent appearance in “Sisu Swims” is lovely, ethereal and playful, and with a sense of peace and freedom associated with it, while later in both “Escape from Talon” and “Noi and the Ongis” it is incorporated into the fabric of a pair of knockabout action sequences that contain so many conflicting ideas and textures that they perhaps veer too much into the realm of Mickey Mousing. Yes, Noi is supposed to be a mischievous character, and the Ongis are naughty little monkeys who cause havoc wherever they go, but Howard’s music here feels a little too much on the wrong side of overly-frenetic and for me is one of the score’s few misfires.

Most of the rest of the middle section of the album comprises action sequences, journey sequences, and moments of expository revelation that advances the plot and deepens the relationship between Raya and Sisu. “Fleeing from Tail” and “Journey to Talon” are frenetic action sequences that feature an array of aggressively prominent synth material with a rousing choir and more ethnic percussion. “Captain Boun” has an odd sound which blends old-fashioned electronica with textures taken directly from Chinese opera. “Dragon Graveyard” is at times quite harsh, with the electronic textures and ethnic woodwinds coming together to create an atmosphere of uncertainty and, at times, horrified despair. “Being People Is Hard” is sentimental, gentle, full of emotional pathos, and also features a terrific sequence of regal brass fanfares that are quite striking.

“Spine Showdown” is a major action highlight – big orchestra, big choir, big percussion, prominent electronics – and is notable for its introduction of a superb, rousing, adventurous variant on Raya’s theme at 2:27. The subsequent “Running on Raindrops” offers another terrific variant on Raya’s theme, lively and magical and full of a whimsical energy that really captures the character’s essence. “Plans of Attack” will likely be one of the cues that traditionalists hate the most – it jumps from rock to aggressive 1980s electronica to something approaching surfer music in just a touch over a minute – but all will be forgiven in “Brothers and Sisters,” which presents Raya’s theme in a noble, soaring, emotionally powerful setting. This is a call to arms for all the tribes, who must come together under Raya’s leadership to defeat their common enemy. The soaring string lines and emotional choral writing is just superb.

The finale of the score begins with “The Meeting,” which re-configures the now-familiar textures in the most dramatic way, and rises to some quite powerful heights, especially as it becomes apparent that the druun are about to attack – the huge descending brass blasts towards the end of the cue herald their arrival. Action dominates the next three cues – “Storming Fang,” “The Druun Close In,” “Return” – which are full of pulsating electronic tones, undulating string lines, agile Asian textures, and evocative choral outbursts, all surrounding statements of Raya’s theme, Sisu’s theme, and the darker material for the druun. It’s all big and powerful and quite frenetic, but very satisfying; much of it again recalls earlier Howard works like Waterworld, as well as more recent scores like Maleficent and Fantastic Beasts, with the most obvious difference being the greater prominence of the electronics. The final minute or so of “Storming Fang” is wonderfully exuberant, and “The Druun Close In” has a sense of intensely powerful resolve that reminds me of the best parts of the score for Dinosaur, which crosses over into the equally gritty and aspirational “Return”. The finale of this cue ends with a magnificent final statement of Raya’s theme as victory over the druun is achieved, before “The New World” presents an uplifting finale that moves between Raya’s theme and Sisu’s theme, both at their most glorious.

There has been an oddly negative reaction to Raya and the Last Dragon in some quarters which, I have to say, I don’t understand at all. While there are a couple of things I personally would have preferred – such as there being more of the adventure version of Raya’s theme, or perhaps a more obvious musical identity for each of the tribal cultures – I certainly don’t feel that the score is a disappointment in any way. It seems to me that people were taken by surprise by the amount of electronica in the score; there remains a certain sub-set within soundtrack appreciation that has decided that the use of any synthesizer immediately makes a score inferior, irrespective of whether their use makes sense from a storytelling point of view, and despite the fact they have been heard alongside orchestras for more than 45 years now – it really is time to put that notion to bed. For me, Raya and the Last Dragon is a joy; while it never quite reaches the heights of Maleficent or the Fantastic Beasts films, it is nevertheless a score with a lot of heart and warmth, plenty of energy, mysticism, emotion, power and scope, which blends the synthetic and the acoustic together in a way that is interesting, appropriate, and captures the spirit of Raya’s world.

Buy the Raya and the Last Dragon soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Lead the Way (written and performed by Jhené Aiko) (3:43)
  • Prologue (5:44)
  • Young Raya and Namaari (3:26)
  • Betrayed (4:34)
  • Search for the Last Dragon (1:13)
  • Into the Shipwreck (2:52)
  • Enter the Dragon (0:52)
  • Fleeing from Tail (1:22)
  • Captain Boun (1:02)
  • Journey to Talon (1:19)
  • Sisu Swims (1:44)
  • Dragon Graveyard (2:53)
  • Escape from Talon (3:42)
  • Noi and the Ongis (2:32)
  • Being People Is Hard (4:05)
  • Spine Showdown (3:26)
  • Running on Raindrops (2:11)
  • Plans of Attack (1:15)
  • Brothers and Sisters (3:58)
  • The Meeting (3:19)
  • Storming Fang (4:09)
  • The Druun Close In (2:58)
  • Return (4:58)
  • The New World (2:35)

Running Time: 69 minutes 52 seconds

Walt Disney Records (2021)

Music composed and conducted by James Newton Howard. Orchestrations by Pete Anthony, Jeff Atmajian, Philip Klein and Jon Kull. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Jim Weidman. Album produced by James Newton Howard.

  1. Avi Galinsky
    March 9, 2021 at 4:26 pm

    I’m a little disappointed “Music Composed and Conducted by James Newton Howard” isn’t on the cover.

  2. Michael
    March 11, 2021 at 4:06 am

    Good review, Jon. James said on a recent interview that since electronics are now accepted everywhere, he uses them on all his projects, just like CGI is now used on big films, or even smaller ones.

    People forget that this film is more modern on its storytelling and action than James’s previous Disney films (which also were very synth heavy), closer to the Kung Fu Panda or How to Train Your Dragon trilogies. And JNH didn’t went for the easy route of making a asian flavored score, but something like he did with The Last Airbender with some hints of Horner’s Avatar.

    I think what you refer as Raya’s theme is more like a trust theme, especially since it’s used in two scenes without Raya, like in Brothers and Sisters.

    Also, the tribal choir is a trio of singers, curiously, one of them, is Pete Anthony’s daughter, Isobel, who has been performing on James’s scores in the past years.

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