Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon
Raya and the Last Dragon is about a world that used to have grand and beautiful magic to it, but a horrible plague of awful beings, the Druun, came. The dragons helped defend humanity and defeated the Druun, humanity fractured itself into factions and ultimately broke apart the gem that the dragons left behind to protect humanity, releasing the Druun yet again. Raya is on a quest to reunite the pieces of the gem and defeat the Druun, but to do that, she must first find the whereabouts of the fabled last dragon Sisu. The film stars Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wong, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk, Dichen Lachman, Patti Harrison, Sung Kang, Ross Butler, and Sandra Oh. The film is directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa. The story is by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, and Dean Wellins with a screenplay by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. The film is likely still playing in some theaters (released March 5th of this year) and it is available for physical and digital purchase as well as digital rental, but you can also catch it streaming on Disney+ today with no additional fee.
The biggest difference between the Pixar animation wing of Disney and the Walt Disney Animation side is this concept of the "princess." Many, many Disney animated features going way back to the beginning have this character who is either the hero of the story or a prominent character. The concept has far evolved beyond the damsel archetype to a woman in charge of her own destiny to what it is now more often than not, a woman who is a warrior or savior in her own right. It's a nice evolution, but its a disappointing concept for our hero to come from such privilege and to know she wouldn't have gathered a ragtag band of outsiders together had the world not completely ended, she would still be in the lap of luxury. Yet the other side, commoner to royalty is a little over used as well, so maybe the next "princess" should be a politician's daughter? There's no real answer to this nagging, lingering trope it will likely just be for a long time for story's sake.
The most luxurious thing about Raya and the Last Dragon is of course the animation. Though, the other big difference between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation is that Walt Disney Animation more often than not creates more realistic faces for its characters. I felt we were on the precipice of the uncanny valley with Raya and the Last Dragon. Some of the characters looked very much like the actors who voiced them and I was pretty uncomfortable trying to get lost in the story when Awkwafina is talking, but not all together there. The beauty of animation is that worlds and space can be created as well as people and body types, to try and make that more photo realistic is defeating the purpose especially as far as CGI technology has advanced. I want an animated movie to be more magical than realism in this case.
Though, I so very much appreciate the gray realism within the story. People have their faults, their fear and greed often takes hold over everything else, in the film, but the true evil is external. It's this nebulous force that is ever present in the lives of people. It can push people to become closed off. Even as the nation and people of Fang are set up as the "bad guys," it's more that they let their need command their desires. They want to isolate in order to prosper, but they can still fail because their enemy has nothing to do with the other people in the world, but a force they can't help to control forever.
I love the complicated nature of Raya and Namaari's relationship and how that affects Raya's relationships with everyone else. Raya was backstabbed, she felt the ultimate sting of betrayal. I like that it's not love or honor or generosity that is what Raya needs to fulfill her quest, but the literal hardest thing it is for humans to do for each other and that's trust. It's the element that kept me in this story.
The best thing about Raya and the Last Dragon is that the story is so intriguing, I stopped trying to guess what was next and let it surprise me. Lately, the conclusions to the animated films I've watched have left me in awe. This one is no different especially as the events leading up to the climax are so delicately balanced and that there's not just one person leading the charge, but many leaders and many heroes. It's refreshing to sit with my brain only absorbing what's happening rather than what will happen.
Raya and the Last Dragon is terrific. It has that incredibly gorgeous animation and world building we've come to expect, but a surprising and refreshing story that's beautiful in its own right. Did I love the idea of a con baby and her primate pals? You know I did. I couldn't care less that she couldn't talk, Noi's a badass, take no prisoners boss baby and I love her! I highly recommend Raya and the Last Dragon check it out on the big screen if you can (I wish I had).