Movie Review – Raya and the Last Dragon
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
It’s a Disney film, so there are certain expectations that are there for anyone walking into this and those expectations will no doubt be met. There’s a formula to Disney films and this one is as much in that formula. Disney films like Pixar films and a lot of animated films have a formula that they use over and over to tell their stories. It’s also typical of a lot of action-adventure films for children or otherwise. It’s also typical of video games. This film, for example, is very much a fetch quest. This isn’t necessarily a criticism because a film can utilize this formula, as long as they make it fun and do the proper work to endear the audience to its characters. If a formulaic film is well written with a strong character arc, then the formula can be forgotten. The audience can be invested in the story and the persons in it, giving us an emotional attachment and some catharsis, even if it’s built on a predictable foundation.
Disney is known for its fairy tales and its stories about princesses. The Disney princess is very much a stereotype or even a cliché. Over the past 20 years or so, Disney has tried to end that stereotype, which is that of a well-mannered girl whose story mostly revolves around some handsome prince and possibly her love of him. Usually, it’s about some delicate flower in need of rescue in one way or another. However, since Mulan (1998), Disney has tried to make their female characters stronger and more independent or at least not as dependent on a man to rescue them. Disney has also tried not to limit their female characters to being only about pursuing a romance with some man. Disney was able to have its cake and eat it too with its mega-hit, Frozen (2013), but this film leans even more away from that.
Kelly Marie Tran (The Croods: A New Age and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) stars as Raya, the daughter to a chief of an Asian land that has been divided into five tribes or kingdoms. Raya’s tribe is called Heart. Raya is trained in martial arts. She’s raised to be a guardian or protector of a magical orb called a dragon gem. When demonic spirits attack all five tribes and starts to turn people to stone, Raya sets out to find a specific dragon who can defeat the demonic spirits called Druuns. The Druuns are released when the dragon gem is accidentally shattered into five pieces.
Raya is able to hold onto one of the shattered pieces, but each of the leaders of the other four tribes takes one of the shattered pieces. Once Raya finds the specific dragon, she then has to go to each of the other four tribes and retrieve those shattered pieces. It’s a convenience of the plot that she has to do this because the four tribes don’t trust each other. They’re not at war, but they’ve all isolated from one another and it has allowed the Druuns to decimate the tribes slowly but surely.
Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians) co-stars as Sisu, the dragon that Raya wants to find. She’s the equivalent of Robin Williams’ character of the Genie in Aladdin (1992). Superficially, she’s blue, light blue not dark blue like the Genie. She’s shapeshifting or she comes to be shapeshifting like the Genie. She makes anachronistic references in her jokes, meaning she makes references to modern things, even though the time period feels like it’s hundreds of years in the past. Awkwafina’s energy level is also at a pitch and rate that’s certainly closer to Robin Williams than even Will Smith could manage in the remake, Aladdin (2019). Yet, this film makes her more of an active presence in the story than Williams even had.
Gemma Chan (Let Them All Talk and Crazy Rich Asians) also co-stars as Namaari, the warrior princess of another tribe. Her tribe is called Fang. Her tribe was initially jealous of the Heart tribe for having the dragon gem. She initially calls herself a dragon nerd. However, her jealousy and cut-throat nature cause or contribute to Raya’s distrust of people. A failing of the film is like Black Panther it doesn’t truly convey what it’s like in the Fang tribe that would breed her and the tribe’s jealousy. Yet, through their actions and later scenes, we get the sense that they are constantly in survival mode.
The film doesn’t really give us much insight into the various tribes. Along the way, Raya and Sisu visit these tribes in their specific areas. The film skirts through those places very quickly with only a superficial or tertiary look at those places. We essentially get glimpses. Those glimpses are interesting but not as insightful or with much depth. The film focuses on the interpersonal relationships between the three main female characters, Raya, Sisu and Namaari. At that, the film succeeds. It’s beautiful in its female empowerment and female friendships.
Given the theme of President Joe Biden’s campaign was that of unity, this film is a perfect example of that theme. This film is about unity in various ways. It’s not just about unity among women. The film promotes unity among people in different lands or different states or maybe even different countries. Also, given the recent hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, this film is a good one to spread the message that no matter where he come from, we need to trust each other, come together and work as one.
Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!
One nitpick I had about this film concerns Raya’s father, Chief Benja, voiced by Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-0 and Lost). When the Druuns attack, Chief Benja is injured and can’t run to escape the Druuns. Raya helps him to a bridge, but, in order to save her, he throws her over the bridge into the water. He does so because like the aliens in M. Night Shymalan’s Signs (2002), the Druuns don’t like water and water in fact repels the Druuns. However, Raya had a piece of the gem, which also repels the Druuns. My nitpick is Chief Benja not jumping in the water with Raya or him not using the gem to repel the Druuns. He could have saved himself and been there for his daughter. His sacrifice makes sense for a dramatic and narrative sense, but realistically he didn’t need to sacrifice himself.
Rated PG for some violence and action.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.
In theaters and on Disney + with Premier Access.
P.S. An animated short film plays before this feature. It’s Us Again by Zach Parrish, an animator who’s worked on Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016), as well as other recent Disney films. It’s about an elderly, interracial couple that reinvigorates their passion for dancing. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s also very beautifully told and beautifully depicts New York City.