Disney’s new animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon is a remarkable accomplishment for the medium. Rarely does 3D animation look this beautiful. Though a technical marvel, and nearly the Disney comeback we have been waiting on since the end of the Renaissance, this movie isn’t quite perfect. Before we get into it, here’s a recap:
In the fantasy setting of Kumadra, an evil spirit called the Druun plagued humankind, turning them all to stone. A task force of worm-like dragons used their magic abilities to craft a gemstone that kept the Druun away and bring the humans back. The dragons, however, turned to stone and remained that way. The land of Kumadra, once united, fell apart into five bordered countries: Tail, Spine, Fang, Talon and Heart.
500 years pass, and at a meeting called by Heart’s leader who attempts to restore the united Kumadra, the young daughter of the leader of Fang, Namaari, tries to steal the dragon’s gemstone that still lives in Heart. It breaks, and the Druun return. Each leader takes a piece of the gemstone and returns to their country, protecting whoever they can with their remaining gem fragments.
Raya, the daughter of the leader of Heart, looks to the end of every river in search of the last remaining dragon, Sisu. At the last river, Raya awakens her only to find that Sisu didn’t play any part in creating the gemstone. Together, they determine to find all the fragments and piece them back and put the Druun back into the ground.
They search each land to find the fragments, and collect most of them, building a cast of zany characters along from each country (including a ninja baby). When they nearly have everything, the leader of Fang reveals that they don’t want Kumadra to reform. Namaari steals away the gemstone and gives it to Sisu and Raya, but accidentally shoots Sisu in the chest.
Raya marches on Fang’s ziggurat to face her, but ultimately spares her life in order to save the people of Fang. With all the pieces of the gemstone united, and nearly all of humanity gone, the magic works again removing the stone that encased everyone for six years, and returning the dragons after their 500 year slumber.
Raya returns to Heart, and Kumadra is reunited.
While certainly the best of the 3D Disney animation films, there were some frustrating choices made that is keeping Disney from overtaking Pixar at the animation game. The story is great, the cast is great, the visuals are great, but the script completely falls short. There are jokes that I couldn’t even see children laughing at. The physical comedy is all pretty genius, but when it comes to the gags in Sisu’s dialogue, nothing lands. It feels like something studio executives shoehorned into the production to make it more family friendly. This movie would have been far more successful if it had stuck to a more serious tone throughout– something more akin to The Lion King than to Frozen. The story could have been incredibly moving rather than speckled with moving moments.
The performances were one par for the most part. Kelly Marie Tran was a wonderful choice for Raya. She has a special, heroic quality to her voice that fit the character perfectly. Gemma Chan and Daniel Dae Kim were also both very convincing. Awkwafina left more to be desired. While she was lively and enthusiastic, she can’t seem to transform out of Awkwafina. I saw only her every time Sisu spoke.
Now let’s talk about what made this movie good. This studio has mastered particle effects. The clouds, mists and fogs look pristine and move with such carefully calculated physics. It looks like water has also finally been mastered. First with Onward, and now perfected by Disney. They could have convinced me that it was real.
The character animation is still a little bit more stiff than Pixar’s and doesn’t quite have the magic that their old 2D films did, but it’s getting better all the time. Sometimes, they confuse cartoon photorealism for realism, teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley– especially with Chief Benja.
The camera-work was astonishing at some points. They made great use out of some simulated handheld motion in spots that really helped push the action and intensity of the scenes. The light is also quite amazing. While it still doesn’t quite top Pixar’s use of light in movies like Coco or Toy Story 4, it is a special technical achievement.
The story is quite immersive and interesting, and the message is always something to pay attention to if not always original. The character flaws found in Raya, the heroine, certainly make her a more interesting and complex character. She often gives into her rage and is never quick to hope or to trust those close to her. Disney has been pretty good about not giving us too many Mary Sue characters in recent years. The rest of the cast is pretty oddball and whacky, but completely lovable by the end. There were some homoerotic moments that could’ve been better explored between Raya and the antagonist Namaari, but I won’t hold it against the film for leaving it open-ended.
All in all, this is one of Disney’s most successful animated films from the past decade. Without the horrible jokes it might have won me over as the best, but studio intervention can’t really be helped these days. For it’s absolutely astonishing animation and visible passion, I give Raya and the Last Dragon a 4 out of 5.