2021 | rated PG | starring voices of Kellie Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh | directed by Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs | 1 hr 47 mins |
The nation of Kumandra sits locked in a standoff amongst it disparate tribes. 600 years ago a sentient plague known as the Druun threatened the planet and a family of heroic dragons banded together to defeat it, creating an object of power that imprisons the plague, an object now held in the Heart Tribe where young Raya (Kellie Marie Tran) is being trained by her father Benga (Daniel Dae Kim) to protect at all costs. When Benga’s attempts to unite the tribes goes horribly wrong, the Druun are again released plunging Kumandra into a post-apocalyptic ruin – and it’s all Raya’s fault. So Raya and her pillbug companion Tuk Tuk set out to find the mythical last dragon to help stop the Druun and reunite the world once and for all.
The Disney animation studio makes 2 kinds of movies: the musicals and the more serious sword and swashbuckling adventure. If Frozen is the studio’s best musical in decades, Raya and the Last Dragon is their best non-musical adventure in a very, very long time. It’s not perfect, but it is a triumph of animation, creativity and genre-blending storytelling. I loved it.
Firstly, from a stylistic animation standpoint, Raya is the most stunningly rendered Disney film we’ve seen to date. It’s rich with detail and amped up to be seen in 4k. It’s also deep in it’s world building, creating different environments and feels for each tribe we’ll visit from the bustling market streets of the coastal Talon to the snow-driven forest of Spine. Yes, that’s a little video game-ish but it keeps jumpstarting the look of the movie with each new segment without (amazingly) making it feel episodic. Each opportunity to explore the new tribe was exciting.
The world of Raya is a genre-blending fantasy, part medieval castles, part samurai film, part spaghetti Western, part post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. The movie works all of this together at the aid of the story and the visuals just beautifully, turning Raya from Disney castle princess to lone samurai in a few story beats, giving her an inventive horse stand-in with Tuk Tuk and weapons like a sword that shape-changes into a whip. Equally developed is Raya’s antagonist Namaari (Gemma Chen), a childhood friend from the Fang tribe who has also been trained to ruthlessly seek out the Dragon powers to rule the planet for themselves. The two clash in swooping animated sword fights and action scenes.
Raya starts to lose it’s singular creative vision and fall into a Disney formula the second we meet the titular last dragon, Sisu. These aren’t Game of Thrones dragons, they’re magical fluffy Disney serpents that don’t breathe fire and don’t fly; they leap across rain drops and shape shift into humans until they might as well not be dragons at all. Sisu is voiced by Awkwafina and looks exactly like Awkwafina, emulating her comic mannerisms and infusing the film with immediately obnoxious comic one-liners it does not need. As the film journey’s on it builds into an ensemble of wacky characters, including a disarmingly funny Con Baby and his monkey minions. But even with leaning back on those crutches the film is strong enough to navigate past them.
One thing I found hard to get around is the plot structure, one that’s become more fashionable as movies and video games merge mediums. Raya and the Last Dragon is fundamentally a fetch quest story. A powerful orb is shattered into pieces and scattered across the continent and Raya and crew go from one level to the next assembling those pieces. It’s Harry Potter gathering Horcruxes and the kids from It chasing down memory objects in Derry. There is an autopilot nature to this story structure I’m not a fan of. There is a lot in the overall make-up of Raya that lacks originality. Heck, the Druuns looks so much like the design of the time travel anomaly from Dark there should be some copywrite claim there.
A lot of times movies like this – “kid’s movies” – contain things that are brushed away by parents and critics that “oh, it’s just for kids, what does it matter.” This is usually a response to a movie’s sheer stupidity and laziness. Bad jokes, fart jokes, idiotic storylines. Movies like The Boss Baby or The Emoji Movie. I’ve never thought that was a good excuse, to be ok with dumping cringe jokes in kid’s movie. Where the “It’s a Kid’s Movie” defense should actually apply is right here, about a movie’s use of cliches, tired tropes and familiar formulas. Yes, I’ve seen fetch quests and Disney sidekicks a hundred times before, but a young kid hasn’t. Raya and the Last Dragon just might blow a new generation’s mind and if it inspires them to look back through Disney films of that past that used these tropes or – even better – the Western and Samurai movies that inspired this one, that’s all the better.
Many films of this kind have banal, broad themes: friendship, teamwork, listen to your parents. Raya strikes out to tackle a different one, wrapping the film around trust. A misplaced trust kicks off the plot and trust given saves it. There is a conversation to be had here about how the movie deals with trust, basically saying that trust is given on the part of all of us instead of trust being earned by actions. I would argue that final action that saves the world in Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t actually trust, it’s faith. But that the film opens up this for debate is to it’s credit, not a detriment.
Raya and the Last Dragon is scattered with cliches, tropes and flat-stolen ideas, but it manages to pull them all together into a final package that feels fresh and original. It’s entertaining, exciting, creative and beautifully animated. It’s one of the best non-musical Disney films in a long time and one of the best movies of this year.