Review: RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, Stunning Visuals, Stirring Story

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Review: RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, Stunning Visuals, Stirring Story

It’s long been a fact of movie-watching life that no one does animation like the Disney-Industrial Complex does animation.

Whether it’s old-school, traditional animation or new-school CG animation, Disney Animation Studios remains the gold standard, often imitated, but rarely duplicated. With the deepest pockets of any movie studio, Disney can spend the time, money, and labor necessary to get practically any film up to their exacting, demanding standards, the same standards long embraced by audiences on the other side of the screen. With those expectations come pressure for filmmakers working under the Disney banner to deliver high-quality storytelling along with cutting-edge visuals and world-building second to none. On occasion, the visuals and world-building compensate for lackluster storytelling, a problem Disney’s latest contribution to animation, Raya and the Last Dragon, shares to a limited extent.

Set in a pre-technological, medieval world filled with magic, mystery, and, of course, dragons, Raya and the Last Dragon draws heavily from Southeast Asian cultural, social, and literary traditions, inviting Western moviegoers to share in a world that’s simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, centering the narrative not on a wandering Westerner as a viewpoint character, but on a young, female warrior-princess, Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the daughter of a benevolent leader, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), of the Heart Kingdom, and in the opening moments of the film, the heir as Guardian to the Dragon Gem, the last magical artifact remaining from a 500-year-old struggle involving humans and their natural allies, dragons, on one side and Druuns, ravenous, amorphous monsters that turn their victims, human and dragon, permanently into stone statues.

While the benevolent Benja, like most idealized leaders (Disney edition), wants nothing more than peaceful coexistence between the Heart Kingdom (actually Land) and the Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang Kingdoms. Before the centuries-old, epic battle that defeated the Druuns, the four kingdoms or lands were known collectively as Kumundra. What shape or form of government a reunited, reunified Kumundra would take isn’t a question Raya and the Last Dragon answers, let alone asks, but it’s clearly meant to suggest that a reunified Kumundra would be free of strife, conflict, or war. Maybe, though going any deeper would mean getting too far astray from Raya and the Last Dragon’s central themes of the benefits of cooperation, mutual trust, and a healthy respect for nature (personified or not), even as like Mulan last year, the issues of, not just cultural appropriation, but cultural simplification and stereotyping, are all but unavoidable given the subject matter and setting.

An early betrayal, though, sets Raya against Namaari (Gemma Chan), her mirror double or opposite. Like Raya, Namaari has been raised as a warrior-princess, but unlike Raya, she’s been indoctrinated to put Fang Land’s interests first and last. The betrayal leaves the Dragon Gem shattered into five literal and symbolic pieces, the return of Druuns, a scourge that threatens everyone everywhere, and Raya on a not unfamiliar Hero’s Journey or quest to recover the stolen/broken parts of gem, find the possibly mythical last dragon of the title, Sisu (Awkwafina), and gather an assortment of adorable, family-friendly allies on said quest, including Boun (Izaac Wang), the preteen owner of an eatery and ship, Tong (Benedict Wong), a gruff, wide-shouldered, one-eyed warrior, Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a con-artist toddler part of a human/non-human grifting team, and Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), Raya’s oversized pet and means of transportation.

The dragons we meet, however briefly, in Raya and the Last Dragon, are nothing like those found in Western traditions. They’re far from the fearsome agents of chaos and destruction typical of Western myths, legends, and stories. They’re benevolent agents of nature, personifications of different elements of nature, from wind to fog, from water to light, furry instead of scaly, brightly colored instead of scaly green or brown, with elongated bodies and long, sinuous tails. They’re also incredibly non-threatening, perfectly designed for both families with impressionable preteens and the movie-related merchandise that would have filled toy aisles before a global pandemic reshaped consumerism over the last year.

As always with Disney, attention to detail means absolutely everything. From hairstyles to clothing (color, patterns, textures), to the environments of the five lands, each with different vegetation, building styles or structures, and natural features, to the individual characters themselves, Raya and the Last Dragon delivers world-building wonder and awe in almost embarrassing amounts. Still, Raya’s journey all too often embraces familiar tropes and conventions, only swerving at the last moment when Raya’s character growth turns on making a canyon-sized leap of faith (or trust). While often delightful and the source of amusement, the overabundance of characters just as often means they’re barely developed, just sketched in via the broadest of strokes.

Raya and the Last Dragon will receive a limited theatrical release in the United States on March 5, 2021. The film also will be simultaneously available on Disney+ with Premier Access.

Raya and the Last Dragon

  • Don Hall
  • Carlos López Estrada
  • John Ripa(co-director)
  • Paul Briggs(co-director)
  • Qui Nguyen (screenplay by)
  • Adele Lim (screenplay by)
  • Paul Briggs (story by)
  • Don Hall (story by)
  • Adele Lim (story by)
  • Carlos López Estrada (story by)
  • Kiel Murray (story by)
  • Qui Nguyen (story by)
  • John Ripa (story by)
  • Dean Wellins (story by)
  • Kelly Marie Tran
  • Awkwafina
  • Izaac Wang
  • Gemma Chan
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AwkwafinaDaniel Dae KimGemma ChanKelly Marie TranDon HallCarlos López EstradaJohn Ripa(co-director)Paul Briggs(co-director)Qui NguyenAdele LimPaul BriggsKiel MurrayJohn RipaDean WellinsIzaac WangAnimationActionAdventureComedyFamilyFantasy

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