Film reviews and more since 2009

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) review

Dir. Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Raya and the Last Dragon makes you realize that it’s been a long time since Disney gifted us an original story as opposed to a regurgitated, should-be animated remake of one of their storied properties. Sure, to call Raya and the Last Dragon wholly “original” is a stretch, yet one cannot deny the grandeur and scale. Raya and Sisu are sure to join the ranks of Moana and Elsa as staple characters of the Mouse House’s contemporary catalogue. Furthermore, its themes of compassion, border-breaking, and acceptance in pursuit of a kinder world shouldn’t be criticized too harshly in this divisive social climate.

The backstory: Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), the noble chief of “Heart,” one of five regions of the land known as Kumandra. Many moons ago, humans and dragons lived harmoniously in this lush paradise. Then came a sentient plague of ominous purple clouds known as “The Druun,” which turned anyone it touched to stone. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save their human counterparts, capturing the Druun inside a magical gem. 500 years later, Raya befriends the insidious warrior princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), resulting in a skirmish that shatters the coveted gem, re-releasing the plague into the world.

Cut to six years later where Raya’s efforts to find the “last dragon” Sisu (Awkwafina) seem all-for-naught until she finds the warm yet bumbling creature at the end of a dried-up river. Sisu allegedly holds the key to reestablishing Kumandra and permanently crushing the Druun. Upon discovering her, even Raya herself can hardly believe Sisu is as powerful as she is. Yet in their quest to find the five pieces of the gem, Raya’s motive becomes not only about bringing her father back but about finding a bygone unity amongst the lands.

The journey wouldn’t be complete without sidekicks. Thankfully, we have the roly-poly-esque Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who serves as Raya’s transportation, Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a charming baby con artist, and Tong (Benedict Wong), a strong-willed warrior who will surely have a spinoff in a couple years.

Raya and the Last Dragon‘s themes are almost uncanny in its timeliness (considering production began in 2018). Among many things, screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim ponder the idea that if feuding countries could toss aside close-minded notions about so-called rival nations, they could unite for the greater good of the human (and dragon) race. Sure, it’s an idea even the Yippies of yesteryear might find fantastical, but it strikes a chord during a time when politics and social issues (and, yes, a global pandemic) divide people more each day.

Worth noting is that there isn’t a strong villain present in this story. At least not in the classical sense. Namaari isn’t an indestructible warrior hellbent on bringing an end to human civilization. She’s truly not much different than Raya. Both women were taught to fear and hold contempt for others who reside in nations not there own. By the end, Nguyen and Lim show a compromise isn’t impossible but necessary, a refreshing change-of-pace for ordinarily black-and-white Disney formula. While the overarching narrative borrows elements from The Lord of the Rings and Raiders of the Lost Ark (and Moana, right down to its flawed heroine, mythical water powers, and a quest for an otherworldly object), underlying attributes are just bold enough to differentiate it from its influences.

All of this is impeccably detailed through gorgeous animation. We see so many new animated films year-after-year that it’s a wonder we can still be impressed by technical wizardry. Directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (director of the masterpiece Blindspotting), in conjunction with co-directors Paul Briggs and John Ripa, give a dynamic visual look to each of the five provinces we visit. It’s more than solely colors; it’s textures and lighting. Consider the tribal atmosphere of Talon versus the grassy plains of Fang. This is a dense, dynamic marvel of a visual feast sure to captivate even the youngest with its splendor.

Burdensome Disney attributes do rear their ugly head, sometimes more than you’d like. Awkwafina is endlessly charismatic, but I found many of her quips manufactured to inject a light-hearted aura to a film that tries, sometimes too hard, to resist its darker undertones. The not-too-subtle “come together” allegory also makes one appreciate the finer details of Zootopia, which subscribed to the thematic philosophy of subtlety. There’s a bit too much telling here, even if the animators remain committed to showing. Yet I refer back to my original paragraph. I can’t come down too hard on a film this visually ambitious and narratively engaging. Raya and the Last Dragon sets the tone for what we should expect from the animated entertainment we receive this, or any other, year.

NOTE: As of this writing, Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream on Disney+.

NOTE II: Catch my review of Raya and the Last Dragon on Sleepless with Steve:

Voiced by: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Thalia Tran, Benedict Wong, and Alan Tudyk. Directed by: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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