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Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Directed by: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa

Premise: An animated film. Set in a fantasy world, a handful of distrustful clans live in fear of monsters that can turn human beings to stone. Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) sets out to find the broken pieces of a magic crystal and the dragon who can rid the world of the monsters.

What Works: Raya and the Last Dragon is a successful fantasy adventure that impresses with its sophistication. Quite often fantasy movies present dualistic conflicts in which good heroes fight evil villains with little equivocation between them. Raya and the Last Dragon complicates the usual fantasy scenario in a way that is organic to the story. Raya must take a leap of faith not just as a matter of character growth but also because it’s the only way to accomplish her goal and the film intertwines the character development and the plot in ways that are efficient and effective. Raya and the Last Dragon allows its other characters a similar level of complexity and nuance. The fierce warrior Tong (voice of Daniel Dae Kim) and the villain Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan) are initially presented as hardened characters and then the reasons they appear that way are gradually revealed. This allows the characters more depth than we often get from this kind of animated fantasy adventure. Raya and the Last Dragon is impressively crafted. The film comes from Walt Disney Animation Studios and the work is consistent with the studio’s recent output but there is a magical whimsy to Raya and the Last Dragon that distinguishes it from other recent animated features. The film includes a few beautiful sequences and the monstrous creatures who threaten humanity are uniquely designed.

What Doesn’t: As much as Raya and the Last Dragon is unique in its complex characterizations, much of the story consists of familiar fantasy tropes. Most of those clichés are frontloaded into the opening portion of the story, allowing the filmmakers to complicate and move past them. Raya and the Last Dragon possesses a strange collection of tones that never quite coalesce. This is a fantasy story set in a preindustrial world and much of the film is serious and straightforward the way this kind of fantasy adventure is typically presented. But the film also has moments of humor, mostly from the dragon Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. The comedy recalls the humor of Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove. It’s absurd and contemporary and very funny but the humor doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the picture.

Bottom Line: Raya and the Last Dragon is a satisfying fantasy adventure. As a piece of entertainment, the film succeeds in offering a combination of action and laughs but the picture struggles to unify those pieces in a way that is tonally consistent. Nevertheless, it’s a fun movie with some nuanced characters.

Episode: #850 (May 9, 2021)