Raya and the Last Dragon (MOVIE REVIEW)
Runtime: 107 Minutes
Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izzac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Kae Dim
Even after nearly 60 feature films in their entire catalogue, Walt Disney Animation Studios still manages to find ways of surprising audiences worldwide through their more recent developments of unique experimentation. Their recent efforts such as Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia and Big Hero 6 proved that they could break their usual mould of musical fairy tales and still keep their solid reputation as a studio full of creative and wide eyed filmmakers. Up until now with Raya and the Last Dragon, we are finally seeing the studio at perhaps their most audacious since their Altantis and Treasure Planet phase of the early 2000s. Their newest film takes us back to the Disney Princess ideologies again but with the new exciting twist of this one being a grand fantasy epic instead of a traditional musical, it proved that there was still some new stuff to look forward to in the house of mouse. And with this falling into the homes of many UK homes through Disney+’s Premier Access, is this new stylish fantasy action flick worth seeking out?
Raya and The Last Dragon is a surprisingly serious film at its core than how it may appear on the surface. Set in the land of Kumandra, split into 5 different factions, the world fell to pieces with each of the lands falling out after dragons who once co-existed in the land sacrificed themselves to save the land. But when that spell is broken once again, reawakening a evil magic known as the Drunn, Raya sets out into the unknown to search for Sisu, the last known living dragon who she believes can save them from this magic and restore piece to Kumandra. But through tagging along with a ragtag group of individuals with their own motives to being on this quest, Raya learns some harsh truths revealing there’s a lot more to saving the world than a dragon’s magic.
For a Disney movie like many others which has some of the standard traditions we usually come to expect (cute animal sidekicks, quirky celebrity comic relief, emotional climax, etc), what was never expected out of Raya for the most part was how serious and surprisingly dramatic a lot of the film is. Kumandra is an exciting Fantasy land that is as intriguing as it is very sad. The Drunn, the film’s main antagonistic threat is a toxic cloud that engulfs people’s souls and turns them to stone, leaving us in a world where most of society is split apart and almost everyone has lost family and friends. This is something that’s established very quickly in an exhilarating prologue and despite the serious playing out of events, the way this film is able to use it’s world building to this advantage makes it easy to feel sympathy for any of these characters. The opening act in general might be a bit too over expository given just how fleshed out this world is, but when the film gets into high gear only 20 minutes in as we reestablish Raya and her journey to find the last dragon, the world and its characters go hand in hand to make for a strong emotional experience.
If there’s one area of Raya and the Last Dragon that deserves more praise than anything, it’s the screenplay. Co-Writer Adele Lim, known for her script on Crazy Rich Asians, pens this one and through the film’s take on a broken democracy with Kumandra’s world being split apart, she provides such great depth to the cast here. Even down to our main protagonist, Raya, no one ever feels fully in the right or wrong, and it only serves to help her arc when she learns there is more to just letting dragon magic restore peace. At the end of the day, Raya is a film about trust. How when we are in a world or situation where everyone is in disagreement with one another, sometimes it takes trying to trust others to help make a better society. Much of these themes are brought into great conjunction with such an amazing supporting cast that feel just as memorable and important to this story to make this message of trust and inclusiveness work. From Boun, a young boy who travels on a boat selling food, to a hilarious con-artist baby, and a soft eye-patched warrior with a strong exterior, these characters all serve to relay this message and the film’s themes. All of these characters belong to opposing sides of Kumandra and have all lost loved ones to the Drunn, meaning not only that their quest is on similar mutual terms, but also proves how their co-operations relies on the growing sense of trust that Raya fails to get a grasp on for fairly legitimate reasons. Everyone feels bitter, flawed, but also has a sense of wonder and hope, and when a story this mature and this layered in its writing manages to make everyone feel compelling enough despite the seriousness of the world, then it only deserves commending. Additional praise also needs to go to Awkwafina as Sisu, the titular last dragon. It’s not uncommon knowledge to find a new Disney movie have a celebrity comic relief character as the main star of the show, but what Awkwafina is able to provide in this film both on a comedic and dramatic level is just nice icing on the cake. She provides a ton of heart and given how depressing and mellow much of the story can be, it’s so important for a film like this to nail her comedy just right to relieve some of the tensions at the right time. Awkwafina is able to provide both sides of that in spades and this film only provides more proof aside from The Farewell that she does also have solid dramatic chops, even if it’s just through her voice.
Raya and the Last Dragon is another amazing home run for Disney Animation and my personal favourite of their films since Tangled in 2010. Some expository baggage and the occasional cringe trendy line aside, what this film is able to accomplish with its message of trust in a world that’s about as divided and broken as the one we’re experiencing in this pandemic makes for one of the most enticing viewing experiences in the last few months. The Disney Animation folks are still able to provide us with whole new worlds and experiences thanks to this film’s action epic approaches, and mixed with the impressive sword fights and emotional resonance in its thrilling conclusion, it makes for terrific family viewing of the highest caliber. That 20 pound Premier Access fee might be too much to ask for just to access this film for a few months before it becomes free to all Disney+ subscribers, but if you are willing to take the plunge into Disney’s new and exciting universe of magic and curses, you are in for a real treat.
FINAL RATING:- 9/10 (AMAZING)