Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Familiar but enjoyable
There’s something familiar about Raya and the Last Dragon. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s there. In this review I’ll try to zoom in on exactly what that thing is. Regardless, Disney applied a formula to the movie that mostly works. The journey is enjoyable and the ending is satisfying.
The story is set in the fictional Asian land of Kumandra. It was once peacefully cohabited by humans and dragons. But after the monstrous Druun swept the land devouring life forces, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save the humans. Kumandra then split into five feuding lands. Now, after the Druun have returned, Raya must find the fabled last dragon to save her people and reunite Kumandra.
The movie starts with Raya narrating the history of Kumandra. Immediately I was reminded of Marvel’s Black Panther. Wakanda and Kumandra might look different but they share a similar premise. Both fictional lands set in real continents and based loosely on existing cultures and peoples. I imagine the exoticness of a fictional Asia was intended to be enticing to moviegoers. But Asian culture and landscapes are relatively familiar in film. Wakanda definitely had the edge as being the first to introduce a high-tech African nation that still embraces it’s African-ness. In comparison, Kumandra feels like a knock-off Wakanda.
The plot also contains a magical gem that is broken into five pieces. Each divided land holds one of the pieces and Raya has to collect them all in order to defeat the Druun. Like the structure of Kumandra, this plot point in the movie also feels familiar. Harry Potter and other characters in pop culture have had to go on this journey with their own respective magical MacGuffins. This definitely didn’t kill the movie for me but I did feel it dumbed down the story just a bit.
What I liked
The art is breathtaking in this movie. Pixar and Disney have really mastered animation in a way no other studios have been able to quite replicate. I think a lot of that comes down to lighting. It was something that was very apparent in Pixar’s Soul and it shows up again in this movie. Hyperrealistic lighting effects when combined with intentionally semirealistic characters creates something magical.
I also really enjoyed the fact that this Disney princess was a leader and warrior from the start. There was no fighting against the system to earn her status. The movie just let her be herself. Similarly, Raya’s main antagonist, Namaari started strong and got stronger as the plot progressed. The cleverly impressive fight sequences were used to great effect to display their skills.
What I didn’t like
I’m all for female empowerment, but this movie seemed to forget its male audience. I suspect most guys will feel disconnected from this story in a way that Disney’s well-oiled marketing machine should have caught early on. I didn’t have this issue with Frozen, Moana or Frozen II. These were some of Disney’s most recent female-centric films and they better understood broad audience appeal. My guess is that the already bloated cast didn’t have room for a male character of importance.
And that’s the other issue with this movie. Someone at Disney decided to include every famous Asian actor in Hollywood as a character. It’s a genuinely nice gesture to an underrepresented ethnic group in Western film. But what resulted was an overstuffed cast and a complicated plot. Fortunately, it doesn’t hurt the film too much…it’s just noticeably unnecessary.
The calculated casting, storytelling and design was a little too on-the-nose in Raya and the Last Dragon. In the long run it will probably be fruitful. I suspect a whole slew of products, rides and tv shows will eventually be born out of Raya and the Last Dragon. But for right now, the movie doesn’t quite have the Disney magic to be a true classic.
Still, it’s a movie that’s enjoyable. The voice cast does a great job and the visuals are mesmerizing. It hits enough of the right notes to be a genuinely entertaining watch.