Thursday, March 4, 2021

Hotchka Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

© Walt Disney Animation Studios

Raya and the Last Dragon uneasily blends past and present

by Chuck Duncan
Rating: ★★

Voice Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

It's interesting that after the success (?) of Mulan on Disney+ with Premiere Access -- meaning subscribers had to pay an additional $30 to watch the movie three months before it became available to general subscribers -- that Disney has gone that route again with another Asian-influenced film, this time the animated Raya and the Last Dragon.

The story is set in the mythical realm of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together in harmony for centuries. The dragons sacrificed themselves to save the land from an evil force known as the Druun, a 'mindless plague' that turns people into terra-cotta statues. The plague divides the land, shaped like a dragon, into individual realms given the names of the body pieces the land resembles (for instance, Spine). But the dragons created a crystal comprised of their individual attributes that would protect the land and 500 years later, one family is still protecting the crystal from those who seek to possess it.

© Walt Disney Animation Studios

This is how we meet the child named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), whose family has been protecting the crystal all these years. She is training with her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) to be the crystal's next protector, but Benja is also an idealist who believes he can bring the scattered denizens of what was once Kumandra together again and make the land whole. Raya isn't so sure but at a gathering of invited guests she meets Namaari (Gemma Chan), a young girl similar in age who is also a self-professed 'dragon nerd'. The girls bond over their love of dragons and Raya trusts Namaari enough to show her the crystal. Turns out Raya was right to not trust the outsiders as Namaari was playing her all along to steal the crystal for her mother's kingdom. As the others get involved and Raya and Benja do their best to protect the crystal, it ends up shattered with each realm stealing a piece. Unfortunately, the destruction of the crystal unleashed the Druun into the world again, claiming many victims including Raya's father (who pushed her off a bridge just in time).

Six years later, Raya and her pet armadillo Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who has grown to an enormous size, are now traveling the land to find the mythical Last Dragon, which is said to reside at the end of a river. But there are hundred of rivers to search and Raya is not about to give up. Of course, it's the very last river where she finds Sisu (Awkwafina), a water dragon, who eagerly joins Raya and Tuk Tuk on their mission to retrieve the shards of the crystal and bring peace to the land once again. Of course she's also got to worry about Namaari, who is now on their trail to take the shards for her own realm, bringing them all the power Raya's realm once possessed.

© Walt Disney Animation Studios

Raya and the Last Dragon
is a beautifully animated film, for the most part. The scenery is gorgeous, the colors pop, and Sisu moves like water through the air in her dragon form (one of the crystal shards allows her to take on a human form). The only issue I have with the animation is the often emotionless, rubbery faces of the human characters, Benja being the most egregious (he looks like a man who had both a face lift and botox at the same time). The issue does become less noticeable as the film progresses, but that could be just because you finally get used to the look and focus more on the story.

The story itself is fine, but I think the problem is there are too many realms for Raya and company to visit in the film's one hour and fifty-four minute running time, making it much, much too easy for Raya to retrieve the shards. She basically walks in and they give it to her without much of a fight. That fight, of course, is saved for the final battle between and Raya and Namaari to determine who gets control of the Dragon Stone. The last act of the film, once it gets to that showdown, is actually quite exciting and moving as tragedy strikes and the Druun attack in full force, and the finale is very emotionally rewarding.

My biggest problem, and it's probably because I'm old and not the exact target audience for the film (and this is where films from Disney Animation differ from Pixar which makes films that appeal to all ages) is the anachronistic dialogue, especially from Sisu. There really was just too much modernism and euphemisms used today in the script, and it completely took me out of the film. Of course, younger children and teens watching the film will certainly appreciate the attempt to make the young characters relatable to them, but as an adult it just bugged me (as did the few too many fart jokes).

So Raya and the Last Dragon has its pros and cons. Kids will absolutely enjoy it, adults will tolerate it. It does have a decent story, lovely animation, and an emotional punch at the end that really does make the film worthwhile for all audiences. It's just the journey to get to that point that may test some viewers' patience.

Raya and the Last Dragon is in theaters and on Disney+ with Premium Access from March 5.

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