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Raya and the Last Dragon Review

March 5, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Raya & The Last Dragon Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios
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Raya and the Last Dragon Review  

Directed By: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs and John Ripa
Written By: Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim
Runtime: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements

Kelly Marie Tran – Raya
Awkwafina – Sisu
Gemma Chan – Nemaari
Izaac Wang – Boun
Benedict Wong – Tong
Thalia Tran – Noi
Daniel Dae Kim – Chief Benja
Sandra Oh – Virana
Alan Tudyk – Tuk Tuk
Lucille Soong – Dang Hu

Disney’s latest animated feature is an epic fantasy adventure with a Southeast Asian flair in Raya the Last Dragon. Since Walt Disney Animation first unveiled the feature back at D23 Expo 2019, the film has undergone many changes, including recasting the lead, along with reshuffling the directors and producers. While the film does show signs of production upheaval, what does work in Raya and the Last Dragon‘s favor is its presentation of a fresh, imaginative new world with a look and style unlike anything previously seen in Disney Animation.

In the world of Kumandra, the land used to be a harmonious place where humans lived peacefully alongside dragons. The dragons were noble, benevolent and gentle creatures who gave their lives to save humanity from a dark, apocalyptic threat known as the Druun. Many years later, the warrior tribe of the Heart Kingdom, led by Chief Benja (Kim), guards the precious jewel the dragon clan created to vanquish the evil force and keep it at bay.

Unfortunately, the people of Kumandra grew petty and greedy, splintering off into five tribes who all covet Heart’s possession of the jewel. Shortly after Benja’s daughter, Princess Raya (Tran), comes of age to earn her guardian status for the jewel, a peace conference is held in the hope of once more uniting the kingdom. Unfortunately, Raya’s attempts at following her father’s example are misplaced. The jewel is shattered, along with the nation’s uneasy peace. Years later, a now-adult Raya wanders through a broken homeland, accompanied only by her loyal mount Tuk Tuk (Tudyk), who resembles a pill bug. She now seeks the mythical last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), and hopes to repair the fractured gem and regain what she’s lost.

As a CG-animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon certainly has a lot going for it. It has a unique look and setting, unlike anything that’s ever been depicted before in western animation. There’s a solid premise. The world of Kumandra looks wondrous and gorgeous. It’s full of lavish locations, architecture and beauty. Even the character models have a nice flavor that’s unique from past Disney animation.

The problems for the film appear to come in the form of the changes in the directing and producing teams midway through production. The pacing for the first half is awkward. Sisu, the long-lost water dragon, is found rather easily with very little fanfare.

Elsewhere, the jokes and humor that are littered throughout the 108-minute runtime often aren’t very funny. The fantasy setting for Raya and the Last Dragon is reminiscent of an old-world, ancient version of Asia, yet characters speak with a modern, contemporary voice. The film’s modern vernacular at times sounds a bit forced, and many of the jokes’ punchlines fail to hit the mark.

That’s not to say the film is bad. Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim’s script shines in the quieter moments. There are quite a few moments littered throughout Raya where there’s strong visual storytelling and even subtle character development. It’s the quiet, dramatic moments, where characters see what they’ve lost and are not cracking jokes, where Raya truly shines.

Raya and the Last Dragon has trouble finding its footing in the first half. The first act starts flat with too many prologues. The story begins with Raya in the now post-apocalyptic Kumandra before flashing back to earlier when the story probably should have started with the latter. Among the heavy narrative changes for the film, a scene for the film at D23 showcased a completely different introduction for the character of Sisu that made the character come off as far more interesting.

It’s not uncommon for Disney animated features to go through heavy changes during production. Zootopia went through massive changes as well, and entire subplots were dropped and select scenes were reedited. However, in this case, the changes for Zootopia were largely positive, while Raya and the Last Dragon appears to have lost some of its punch for the opening act and portions of the second act.

Once the plot gets moving and the central characters are grouped together, Raya and the Last Dragon becomes a far more entertaining and enjoyable experience. The Druun as a threat could have benefited by some fleshing out. They aren’t quite threatening and scary enough to leave an impression. The origins of the Druun needed to be expanded upon to nail down the cautionary tale that they represent.

The ragtag misfits who later coalesce for Raya and Sisu’s party are all generally likable and charming, especially Benedict Wong’s warrior brute with a heart of gold, Tong. The group could have used a bit more screen time together to bring out its full potential.

The way that the central themes of trust and compassion are established for Raya, who has her trust shattered, has some rough execution as the cynical, distrustful Raya is juxtaposed against the warm, compassionate and rather naive Sisu. Raya needed more of a harsher, rough edge early in the story to help round out her character arc.

When Sisu isn’t the comic relief, she’s a halfway decent character. While seemingly too naive at first, her strength and magic lie in a more profound space.

Raya and the Last Dragon‘s central message of embracing trust and letting go of cynicism and rage is a welcome one, especially in light of current times. In the second half, the plot elements work together much better, exemplifying that the true antagonist is human rage. The symbolism of forgiveness, even towards those who have broken trust, is the true inner strength of Raya and the Last Dragon.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Raya and the Last Dragon is basically a tale of two movies. It's a film with a clunky first half but finds more of a groove later in the second. Raya and the Last Dragon displays a cornucopia of amazing visuals, and the animators have created a lavish fantasy world inspired by Southeast Asian culture and folklore. The film suffers from a disparate production team and a case of one too many cooks in the kitchen. The story's jokes are relatively flat, but the quiet and dramatic moments are strong and far more powerful. If families are going to sit around for a night of Disney+ entertainment for the evening, they can do a lot worse than Raya and the Last Dragon.