Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.
Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler
Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall
Running Length: 108 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades. As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department. For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio. The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.
Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore. Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.
That’s not to say each film is easy. Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example. This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female. Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land. The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role. It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.
Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling. Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape. This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land. In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance. The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more. Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.
Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders. During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour. True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend. By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.
To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers. It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing. It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.
As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t. Was it? With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one. That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films. Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her. In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past. Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.
Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled. It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above. It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.
If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again. For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June! Check out my review of Us Again here.