A film review by Craig J. Koban June 15, 2021


2021, PG, 112 mins.

Kelly Marie Tran as Raya (voice)  /  Awkwafina as Sisu (voice)  / Gemma Chan as Namaari (voice)  /  Daniel Dae Kim as Benja (voice)  /  Benedict Wong as Tong (voice)  /  Sandra Oh as Virana (voice)  /  Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk (voice)  /  Thalia Tran as Little Noi (voice)  /  Izaac Wang as Boun (voice)

Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

Disney's latest computer animated fantasy adventure RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON - their 59th animated outing - has all of the requisite elements that we've come to expect from the House of Mouse: Sumptuous imagery and meticulously rendered spectacle, a plucky heroine of a decidedly different brand of "Disney princess," solidly invested voice performances, and worthwhile themes that speak towards audiences young and old.  Directed with flair and ingenuity by Don Hall (BIG HERO 6) and Carlos Lopez Estrada (BLINDSPOTTING), the meticulous and consummate craftsmanship that's on display here is pretty extraordinary and rivals just about anything from either the Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks canon.  Beyond that, though, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is a mixed bagged affair that maybe adheres too slavishly to Disney troupes, which leaves it feeling a tad safe and soft pedaled with the underlining material.   

And boy, do the early segments of this film get really, really bogged down with a lot of exposition that frankly inspires ample watch checking.  There's a remarkable amount of dense mythology to be had here, so I'll do my best to relay it all.  Set in the mystical land of Kumandra, this fabled land once long ago had an evil entity called Druun that existed primarily to destroy everyone and everything, turning all living beings into stone (think the inverse Thanos snap effect).  Of course, there is only one thing in the land that can defeat such an omnipotent and powerful entity: dragon magic.  One of the last known one of its kind, Sisu, gathered together with other dragons to forge a gem stone that's used to stop this world spanning apocalypse from happening.  Myth has it that Sisu perished in the battle, but there was always the belief that she survived...someway...somehow. 

We flashforward 500 years into the future, seeing Kumandra now being divided into multiple realms, with one being overseen and led by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), who has made it his mission in life to protect the aforementioned dragon gem while teaching his daughter in Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) all of the ways of fending for herself.  Unluckily for Banja, Raya, and their realm, they're all betrayed by the nefarious Namaari (Gemma Chan), leading to the vital dragon gem being shattered in the process and being scattered across the land.  We then flashforward again by roughly half a decade and see an older Raya and her large pet Tuk Tuk partaking in a large quest in the post-apocalyptic ruins of their once beautiful world to find and bring together the fragments and, yup, locate the fabled Sisu (Awkwafina) to bring peace, freedom and unity back to her people.  Joined by a colorfully eccentric group of supporting characters from various walks of life, Raya and Sisu (who's acclimating to the new world after being dormant for five centuries) find their work definitely cut out for them. 




There's a lot of movie here.  

As alluded to already, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON gets off to a fairly bumpy start when it comes to explaining everyone and everything that makes up this cinematic universe (provided by Raya herself in a voiceover narration track that feels more like a history lecture than something grand and exhilarating), which has to - in just a few minutes - give us details about Druun (it takes the form a massive purple energy cloud), dragons, gem stones, Kamandra, its multiple kingdoms (Heart, Spine, Talon, Tail, and Fang), Raya her father's relationship...and so on.  Some movies manage to throw us immediately into the thick of things and let their worlds evolve and mature organically before our eyes, but RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON commits the mistake of being way too talky with its world building as it opens.  As an adult, I was checking out quickly, but can only imagine how a child would respond with such information overload from the onset. 

Still, as a gorgeous visual odyssey that inspires legitimate wonder, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is unquestionably potent, with the directors filling the screen with all sorts of striking and richly delineated CGI details that makes this fantastical world come fully alive.  There's great attention paid to making each of the realms that Raya and company experience feel uniquely and compellingly their own, not to mention that individual character designs are expressively top notch (the personas that populate this story don't look real, per se, but the fluidity of their movement and the subtlety of their facial expressions sure make them ring with stunning authenticity).  RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON demands repeat viewings in order to simply drink in all of the pleasures that occupy every inch of the screen (it's layered in the way that makes STAR WARS and LORD OF THE RINGS so sprawling and lived in).  Also (and it goes without saying), it's a most welcome thing to see a female driven, Asian focused animated epic that's certainly not a dime a dozen in the history of the medium, which speaks highly towards Disney's noble quest for expanding cinematic representation. 

And Raya herself is not an obligatorily Disney stamped princess on pure autopilot either, which I respected.  RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON is certainly guilty of failing to transcend certain Disney-fied troupes (more on that in a bit), but I liked how the titular character has evolved - both in terms of ethnicity and role - away from what we come to expect from overused examples from Disney's playbook.  Raya could have been either an overpowered feminist super hero granted with magical abilities and powers (don't get me started on the horrendously ill conceived live action treatment of MULAN by Disney last year), or, worse yet, a damsel figure that requires saving.  RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON finds a compelling middle ground here, presenting a hero that's capably strong, but emotionally fragile that tries to do what she can to save her peoples' legacy and history.  This is tied into the larger messages of the story (which are thankfully never force fed down our throats) about the power of uniting forces in uncertain times and the power of bringing different lands together for the common and greater good.  There's both historical and timely relevance in these themes, which gives RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON a grounded heartbeat and sense of purpose despite its magical trappings. 

On the other hand, though, this is still a Disney picture, and it seems frustratingly reticent to subvert storytelling formulas and/or going deeper and more maturely into universe building.  When it boils right down to it, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON scores points for its East Asian influences, character focus, and a willingness to go beyond with Disney princess archetypes, but it nevertheless still plays into many stale and well worn studio conventions that have made the company famous (yes, cute little animal sidekick characters abound here, albeit without musical montages).  Also, the overreaching MacGufifn-locating inspired plot is mostly perfunctory and hits many predictable beats, and even when aspects of it hint at darker introspection, the makers pull back and make the proceedings a bit too cute for their own good.  Even the look of the dragon Sisu herself here is problematic: Awkwafina's voice work is buoyant and provides spirited comedy relief, but her dragon overall is a conceptual letdown, looking more like a colorful plush toy than a commanding beast that inspires admiration and respect.  This might be the most cuddly dragon in movie history.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but previous and infinitely better animated fare like the HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON trilogy found a hard to reach dichotomy in making their creatures appealing, yet imposing and otherworldly all the same. 

Here's one last question to ponder: Was RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON worth the ridiculously costly $35 Canadian via Disney+ (on top of the monthly membership fee) to rent and consume safely at home when it hit months ago (it was one of many potential studio blockbusters that had their fates sealed by the pandemic in terms of release)?  The short answer would be no.  There's so damn much to drink in and admire in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON, but by the time the film ended I was left with overwhelming feelings that this is a remarkable looking and well intentioned mid-tier Disney effort at best, and one that simply won't linger with me for any period of time.  There's a freshness of perspective here, but not much in the way of overall execution or depth.  You can sense Disney wanting to push the creative envelope to produce a truly transcending fantasy adventure, but they hold themselves back from achieving just that. 

  H O M E