Thursday, March 4, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon - Review

Disney and fairytales. A tradition dating back to 1937 with the first animated film released under the name Walt Disney hit theaters. However, the past decade (and some change) has seen the typical love stricken, damsel in distress heroines melt away to more independent, confident, and general adventure focused leads. All which comes to head with their newest film, Raya and the Last Dragon.

In the fictional land of Kumandra, half a millennia ago, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. However, peaceful times hardly make for thrilling action adventure, and the dragons fall at the shadowy feet of the Druun. Now, after a few hundred years of groveling over land and resources, the Druun have returned. Determined to fix what humanity broke, Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, must search the legendary Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina, to restore Kumandra to its once glorious past.

Sisu is the titular last dragon, and while she isn’t much in terms of a magical, humanity saving dragon like her fallen brothers and sisters, she is still a dragon nonetheless. She is nothing if not eager, and as she says “a really strong swimmer”, and willfully accepts to aid in Raya’s quest to re-assemble the broken dragon gem. Awkwafina excels in this role, the goofball demeanor of Sisu is right up her alley, while being completely charming and momentarily heartfelt when need be. 

In order to accomplish this more than difficult task, Raya and Sisu must venture into each territory - Spine, Tail, Talon and Fang, named for each part of the dragon their land is conveniently shaped like - and they pick up a few extra passengers along the way. None are terribly interesting, mostly because they aren’t too fleshed out beyond losing someone to the Druun, but they provide some good comedic relief along the way. 

While the story seems like this big world ending event, the film’s themes are ultimately defined by the relationship between Raya and her rival Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan. Both actresses put in fantastic voice work, rounding out characters that feel like they have long history of butting heads and clashing swords. There is zero trust between the two, and no matter how much the film gets you to root for them just get along, they won’t budge.

But perhaps the best thing about Raya and the Last Dragon, beyond the gorgeous animation, is the world-building. The lore of this universe is quickly established in a few quick scenes at the top, that are fleshed out and explored throughout the remainder of the film. Directors Don Hall & Carlos Lopez Estrada keep the film moving at such an efficient pace, an Indiana Jones style adventure with lessons in trust, friendship and self-sufficiency sprinkled in along the way.

Raya and the Last Dragon carries on the decade long hit streak that Disney has been carrying. The animators continue to outdo themselves with each new release, to the point where some of the landscapes are almost unbelievably gorgeous and the details assigned to each new land are immaculate. Raya is fresh new addition to the pantheon of princesses the entertainment giant has built over the last 84 years. And outside of a few issues with its familiar formula and light landing, Raya and the Last Dragon is certainly the first must-see film of the year. And yes, even if its still from the comfort of your own couch. 

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