RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON ˝
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
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.
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