Raya and the Last Dragon (United States, 2021)

March 03, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Raya and the Last Dragon Poster

Distilled to its essence, Raya and the Last Dragon could best be called “quintessential Disney” in that it incorporates many of the tropes viewers have come to associate with the Magic Kingdom’s generic animated films. Although the film’s claim to innovation is that it is set in a fantasy world inspired by a fusion of East Asian countries and cultures, Raya and the Last Dragon is replete with Disney stock elements such as a plucky warrior princess, cuddly animal sidekicks, and a wholesome underlying message about cooperation and trust in the face of a global danger. (There are, however, no songs, unless one counts the end-credits number.) Unlike Pixar films, which are pitched on different levels and therefore appeal to viewers of all ages, Raya is a Disney release and its screenplay and story are simpler and geared primarily toward younger audiences.

Raya and the Last Dragon transpires in the mythical world of Kumandra. 500 years ago, the united kingdom, which was inhabited by both human beings and (friendly) dragons, faced an apocalyptic danger. The Druun, monstrous, magical creatures born of humanity’s base emotions, afflicted the land, turning to stone any sentient creature they touched. In an act of self-sacrifice that resulted in their extinction, the dragons banded together to create a magical gem that banished the Druun. In the wake of the conflict, the land was divided into five hostile territories – Heart, Tail, Talon, Fang, and Spine – that exist in a perpetual state of distrust and are in no position to combat the Druun when they re-emerge.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of Heart ruler Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and, when the new cataclysm occurs, it falls upon her and her pill bug best friend Tuk Tuk to search for the hidden last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), whose powers offer the promise of a way to defeat the newly-reawakened Druun. Finding Sisu is only part of the solution. Raya must also collect pieces of the shattered dragon gem from the kingdoms while battling the aggression of Fang’s princess, Namaari (Gemma Chan), who wants to possess the shards and the last dragon.

For all the effort put into creating an exotic locale, the film’s storyline is a plot-by-numbers affair where every seemingly desperate situation has a facile resolution and various tragedies and setbacks represent no more than temporary inconveniences. There are plenty of “action” sequences (including a couple of nicely choreographed sword fights) that inject a little octane but are mostly inconsequential. At times, I felt like I was watching Miyazaki lite. The creatures, setting, and even aspects of the plot would be at home in one of the Japanese master’s films but Raya and the Last Dragon lacks the greater depth viewers have come to expect from a Studio Ghibli film.

The photo-realistic computer-generated animation is sharp and crisp. There are times when it’s possible to forget that the movie is animated although the humans retain the “unrealistic” touch necessary to prevent them from seeming creepy. For those who prefer animation that mimics live action, Raya and the Last Dragon offers a sumptuous visual experience. It may represent a glimpse into a future in which certain movies freely swap animated elements with live-action ones. (This is supposedly what we can expect from James Cameron’s long-in-production Avatar sequels.)

The voice cast is primarily comprised of actors of Asian descent: Kellie Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, and others. The screenplay lessens some of the darker elements by making Sisu a fatuous entity who is more apt to provoke chuckles than awe. This isn’t a “dragon” as we have come to expect through more adult-oriented fantasy efforts like The Hobbit and Game of Thrones. Instead, it’s a close cousin to the one in the animated Mulan (voice provided by Eddie Murphy), the title character in Pete’s Dragon, or the beloved Falkor from A Neverending Story – cuddly, friendly, and unlikely to frighten even the most delicate child. Awkwafina’s vocal performance emphasizes the dragon’s affability – she sounds like the slightly crazy aunt that all kids love to hang out with.

Raya and the Last Dragon should entertain children but adults may fidget from time-to-time and the overall impression is of something that, like many middling Disney titles, will quickly be forgotten. Unlike Frozen (and its sequel), the film lacks the magic necessary to command long-term adulation. The Disney-approved, likable characters will find their adherents among the target audience but the movie as a whole lacks staying power. Had it been released directly to Disney+ like last year’s welcome Christmas present, Soul, it would have been easy to recommend Raya and the Last Dragon for viewing. The attached $30 premium surcharge makes it a questionable call.

The movie is being released alongside the animated short Us Again, a quirky story about an elderly couple who rediscover their youth while singing and dancing in the rain. I enjoyed this more than the main feature.

Raya and the Last Dragon (United States, 2021)

Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada
Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong
Screenplay: Qui Nguyen & Adele Lim
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures/Disney+
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2021-03-05
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Animated/Fantasy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1