Review | Raya and the Last Dragon | 2021

Disney's latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon, somehow feels like both a fresh new direction for the Mouse House, and a nostalgic throwback to their more action-oriented output from the early 2000s like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. And not just because composer James Newton Howard has returned to provide the score - the
re's something decidedly more grown-up feeling about Raya that targets a slightly older demographic than Disney's animated musicals.

The story centers around a young woman in a mythical kingdom of Kumandra that has been torn apart by warring factions vying for control over a magical stone once created by a race of dragons to protect the world from an evil force known as the Druun, that turns every living thing it encounters into stone. Tasked with protecting the stone along with her father, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is betrayed by a newfound friend, leading to the warring kingdoms breaking the stone and dividing it amongst themselves, destroying the barrier that kept the Druun at bay and unleashing them upon the world and turning her father to stone. Determined to set things right, Raya now wonders the wastelands of Kumandra searching for the various pieces of the stone to put them together and reunite her kingdom. Along the way she encounters Sisu (Awkwafina), the last surviving dragon whose goofiness is only matched by her incredible magic powers, who accompanies Raya on her journey.

While the animation is often jaw-dropping, there's a lot going on in Raya and the Last Dragon, often to its own detriment. The film spends a lot of time laboriously explaining its mythology and the world in which it is set, resulting in an often convoluted plot that is leaden with expository dialogue. The cast is terrific, with Tran and Awkwafina providing equal amounts of humor and pathos that make their characters easy to root for and give the film its heart. And the action, courtesy of directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), is often quite thrilling. But the narrative is so overstuffed that none these moments land with the gravity that they should. The way Hal and López Estrada combine animation styles offers a glimpse into what the film could have been, but these moments are too few and far between to have any real impact. It also delves into some timely but extremely bland themes of unity, in which the only way for the evil to be defeated is if rivals put aside their differences and trust one another, even if they have proven themselves to be untrustworthy multiple times. It makes sense for a Disney movie, but there's something frustratingly centrist about its messaging. And while it may sound aspirational coming from a children's fantasy, arriving at time when people are extremely divided along political and ideological lines on existential issues, to say that the only way to survive is to trust this person who has tried to kill you and destroy everything you've worked for multiple times seems to veer into some uneasy "both sides" territory.

On the other hand, Raya and the Last Dragon will be accompanied both in theaters and on Disney+ by the animated short, Us Again, which manages to pack more emotional resonance into 6 minutes than Raya manages with 100. Centering around an elderly couple rekindling their love of dancing with the help of some magical rain that transforms them into their younger selves, Us Again plays out like the epilogue that Carl and Ellie from Up never got. It's a tearjerker about reclaiming life and rekindling passions in the  tradition of the best Disney shorts, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see it show up in the Best Animated Short category at next year's Academy Awards. Raya will also likely be a Best Animated Feature player, and it's certainly not the worst film to come out of Disney Animation. But it almost feels like too much of a good thing, a fascinating concept with some strong vocal talent in dire need of streamlining and script editing. And it's especially good to see Tran getting a starring role to show off her talents after getting shafted by Disney in The Rise of Skywalker thanks to racist backlash against her character in The Last Jedi. Young audiences will likely be dazzled by the often jaw-dropping animated action on display, but its overly-complicated world building doesn't give it a firm enough foundation to rise above the much stronger players in Disney's recent canon. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON | Directed by Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada | Stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Alan Tudyk | Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements | Opens in theaters and exclusively on Disney+ on March 5


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