June 12, 2021
Raya and the Last Dragon Still-Shot from Official Trailer

Raya and the Last Dragon

Reporter’s note: I felt the need to mention the recent discrimination against Asian Americans since last March. I am reviewing this movie based on the story, animation, script, voice acting and the creator’s ideas. My review is not a political statement. I wish this movie was of higher quality. My judgment on this film does not reflect my thoughts on any Asian culture. With that, I implore others to look past the recent and misinformed prejudice.

“Raya and The Last Dragon” had the potential to be the next “Mulan” or “Moana,” but ended up being more like “Brother Bear” or “Big Hero 6.” The story and aesthetic could have been amazing, but Disney settled for mediocre.

When I left the theater, all I felt was disappointment. I asked senior Rachel Burns and junior Brandon Daugherty, who saw the film with me, their thoughts on the film and they both came to a similar conclusion.

“It had an interesting story but was not executed well,” said Daugherty. “And the animation was decent but not as good as Disney has shown us in the past.”

In the first scene of the film, a young Raya is seen sparing with her father, Benja, chief of the land Heart. Once Raya proves her worth to her father, Benja entrusts the location of the Dragon Gem and the protective powers the gem possesses.

Chief Benja then hosts a feast for the five tribes of Kumondra (Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine and Fang) during which Raya befriends a fellow dragon admirer, Princess Namaari of Fang. The two form a quick and naive trust for one another which causes Raya to show Namaari the Dragon Gem.

Raya’s naivety plays into the hands of Fang as they try to stealthily steal the Dragon Gem. The gem breaks into five pieces amid the chaos and each tribe runs away with a piece of the Dragon Gem.

With the gem broken, a dark force of evil known as the Druun now ravages the land of Kumondra turning everyone they contact, including Chief Benja, into stone. Raya is then sent on a mission to revive the dragons that once existed 500 years ago. But even with such a fantastical concept, the animation and story overall failed to fascinate.

The animation was on par with “Brave,” which came out in 2012. There were many times where I was impressed by the lighting or the vibrant colors in a shot but it lacked that extra stylistic detail. This movie might have looked as amazing as “Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse,” but the animators took no risks. Even so, I thought the main dragon, Sisu, was the animation highlight of the film.

The word “dragon” brings to mind Avatar Roku’s dragon from “Avatar: The Last Airbender” or Smaug from “The Hobbit”. Even “Onward” has a patchwork dragon composed of debris that’s terrifyingly threatening at the end. However, Disney decided to take that dragon stereotype and flip it on its head, much like Mushu from “Mulan”.

Where Mushu pales in comparison are Sisu’s powers. At first, Sisu seems like the silly side character only there for comedic relief. Yet as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that she is actually old and wise, similar to Yoda. She teaches the rest of the characters the importance of trust, especially between rivals.

Sisu is a long and skinny dragon with her coat being mostly shades of teal with the exception of her mane which is a grayish violet. I appreciate the efforts of the animators to have Sisu look young even though she’s one of the oldest characters in the movie.

Along with the impressionistic Sisu, the Druun also have great character design. Vaguely similar to dementors of the Harry Potter franchise, this purple, formless, mindless plague has littered Kumondra with statues of people who were once alive. The Druun are a ball of toxic energy.

These purple monsters give a sense of urgency for the characters, even though the Druun aren’t intelligent. It puts a cool twist to the man vs. nature narrative. The Druun has an inevitable natural destruction and the five fictional tribes collaborate to combat that destructive force. But even with an aggressive force such as the Druun, the world building didn’t feel grounded.

Less is more. This movie is the result of taking oddly specific influences from all of southeast Asia and cramming those into five fictional tribes. The world building would have felt grounded if the five tribes of Kumondra had direct influence from five southeastern Asian nations.

Each fictional tribe would have been conveyed clearly and the audience would understand each nation a lot faster. There were too many ideas that couldn’t be ironed out in two hours.

I will admit, I did enjoy watching this movie even if there was the occasional plot hole or poor dialogue choices. I hate that the animation was played safe, but I did enjoy seeing the color that Disney brought to the screen.

I give “Raya and The Last Dragon” a two and a half out of five.

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