Review: Disney's convoluted fantasy epic 'Raya and the Last Dragon' finds its stride
Courtesy of Disney
A giant and splashy animated splendor that only Disney knows how to manufacture, “Raya and the Last Dragon” fires on all cylinders despite some convoluted missteps. Made for the big screen with its glistening “Mad Max” deserted landscape and “Game of Thrones” level narrative, “Raya” is set for a dual release: theaters and Disney+ for an added fee, giving families something to sink their teeth into that isn’t “Tom & Jerry.” But “Raya” stumbles over its own mythology, undermining the expansive worldview it constructs in favor of the classic Disney formula. I’m never a fan when animated films - especially within five minutes - practically gives away the entire movie, but the animation is top-tier and the voice work by Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina make this an easily approachable/entertaining ride.
Set 500 years after a plague called the Druun, and when the “last” dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina), roamed the earth, Raya (Tran) is tasked with protecting a prized gem enriched with dragon magic. The gem, left after the Drunn were defeated, divided humanity into five different factions: Heart, Fang, Talon, Tail, and Spine. Now Raya, alongside her father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) dream of uniting the countries to rebuild the united world of Kumandra. That all changes when Fang princess Namarri (Gemma Chan) tries to steal the gem and accidentally breaks it, unleashing a wild pack of Druun which turns citizens, including Benja, into stone.
Fast forward six years, Raya - who barely escaped the attack - is left roaming the wastelands via her giant armadillo searching for Sisu, the key to reshaping the broken gem and ending Drunn’s reign. This heavy expositional and extended prologue dampers the first 25 minutes of “Raya'' and it isn’t until Sisu roars to life - thanks to Awakfina’s infectious voice presence - that Don Hall and Carlo Lopez Estrada’s picture comes alive as well. Once the film sets the dynamic between Raya and Sisu, “Last Dragon” finds its stride and the action sequences flourish.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” does hit a spat of redundancy, constantly reminding audiences about the basic fundamentals of trust. It wouldn’t be a terrible message if it wasn’t jammed down our throats whenever a character questions their own loyalty. Throughout the film, Sisu pushes Raya outside her comfort zone, urging a reevaluation of relationships and placing trust in her fellow neighbor, which considering the stark divisions that exist today, isn’t the worst idea, even if its half-handed objective couldn’t be more obvious.
Of course, no child indulging in the spectacle of “Raya” will lean heavily into those savvy undertones, but getting a colorful palette and an array of relatable characters (from a giant lovable oaf to a con-artist baby) works the same. For adults, “Raya and the Last Dragon” thrives when you let go of Kumandra’s lore, and lose yourself in the scale of what’s pieced together. Sadly, some of that luster dwindles on the small screen, plus distractions at home could prove irksome, but that doesn’t hinder the story’s core values and the extraordinary work these animators have accomplished.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON opens in theaters and debuts on Disney+ with premier access Friday, March 5th.