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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon


Raya and the Last Dragon
gives us some beautiful animation, wonderfully realized action sequences, and a lavish fantasy world called Kumandra, which is inspired by and largely steeped in Southeast Asian influences.  I'm always intrigued when movies create an entirely new world that I haven't seen before in films, and this one certainly grabbed my attention.  If the plot and the characters seem to sway a bit too closely to the familiar Disney formula, at least there is still plenty new here in terms of visuals to hold the audience's attention.

Disney's newest heroine is Raya (voice by Kelly Marie Tran), a girl who can disable temple booby traps like Indiana Jones, is skilled with a sword and in martial arts, and is a self-described "dragon nerd".  Her world of Kumandra was once united and peaceful, and the people lived among powerful dragons who watched over them.  But one day, an evil force known as the Druun appeared.  The Druun are dark, rolling cloud-like forms of matter that turn anyone they touch into stone instantly, and have slowly transformed Kumandra into a dying wasteland over time.  The united nations of the world have now separated, and eye each other suspiciously.  The dragons have also disappeared over time.  All that remains of the dragons is an ancient gem that sits in Raya's kingdom, and is guarded over by her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim).  Said gem is the only thing that can seemingly hold back the Druun, and all the other kingdoms wish to possess it.

However, Benja believes that the time has come for the divided kingdoms to unite once again and take the world back to what it was before.  He invites his warring neighbors into his palace, hoping to bring about a new era.  Raya goes along with her father's plan for peace, and even befriends the daughter of one rival ruler, Namaari (Gemma Chan).  However, it turns out that Namaari's friendship is all a ruse in order to get access to the powerful dragon stone.  Her actions, and the events that follow, cause the mystical gem to be separated into multiple pieces, and for Raya to lose both her kingdom and her father to the Druun on the same day.  Flash forward six years later, and Raya is now a hardened warrior princess with trust issues, who rides across the wastelands of her world on top of her giant animal friend Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who resembles a cross between a pill-bug and an armadillo.  She is searching for the location of the last remaining dragon, who she believes is sealed away in a cave somewhere, and to get its help in restoring the shattered gem in order to save her world.

Raya and the Last Dragon is filled with sights we have never seen before.  The world of Kumandra itself is consistently fascinating, and I especially love how each of the separate kingdoms seem to have their own motif and theme.  There's a marketplace city, there's one that was once populated by battle-hardened soldiers before the Druun turned it into an abandoned husk of its former glory, and their are kingdoms that are praised for their beauty and culture.  It helps with the overall theme of a divided world how each of the separate nations seem to have their own culture and beliefs.  As I already mentioned, the movie's world and structure is heavily based on Southeast Asian culture, which has never really been represented in a mainstream Hollywood film before, let alone a Disney animated one.  This not only gives us some awe-inspiring settings like forest shrines and snow-topped mountains with visible fog, but it allows audiences to experience an entirely new culture.

For all of its wondrous settings and imaginative spin on Asian folklore, the story sticks a bit too close to Disney traditions.  It's a bit disappointing, but probably not surprising.  During her quest, Raya does meet the legendary and titular last surviving dragon, Sisu (Awkawfina), and it is a comic relief sidekick in the style of Mushu from Mulan, or the Genie in Aladdin.  It's not that the character or Awkawfina's voice over performance are bad, as she actually does get off some good one-liners.  It's just you can instantly see the familiar Disney influence being plugged into what was up to now a fairly daring animated adventure film.  Raya also gathers a small band of followers who join her in her quest, who don't seem quite as developed as they should be.  They seem to join up with her mere minutes after she encounters them, and with not much motivation.  With the movie's world-hopping narrative in search for pieces of a shattered gem, and a plucky group of comical ragtag characters coming along for the ride, it doesn't take long for the movie to feel a bit overly familiar, despite the amazing sights.

Please don't see this as me brushing off the film, as I do think it's worth watching simply for the visuals alone.  And Raya herself makes for a strong, likable heroine who has to overcome her issues with trusting others if she wants to fulfill her father's wishes for a united and peaceful world.  These elements are enough to lift the film above any disappointment that the familiarity of the Disney formula brings.  There are also no musical numbers here, the film instead deciding to take the tone of a straightforward fantasy-adventure film.  Rather than elaborate music sequences like in the Frozen films, the emphasis here is on involving action sequences and sword fights, all of which are choreographed beautifully.  There's a lot to get excited about here, just expect some familiar elements that come with the Disney territory to go along with it.


The ultimate question surrounding Raya and the Last Dragon is if it is worth the extra charge to watch.  While it is playing in what few theaters are currently open, most will have to settle for the Disney+ streaming service, which is hiding the film behind a "Premiere Access" fee of an extra $30, even if you are a subscriber.  It will eventually become free to all subscribers in a few months, and I say wait if you can.  It's a fine film, but nowhere near great enough to warrant the extra price to the viewer.

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