Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon ★★★

"Have you ever done, like, a group project, and there was that one kid who didn't do much but got the same grade?"

Carlos López Estrada turns his accolades earned from the excellent Blindspotting and takes his talents to The Mouse for the new Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon. With co-director Don Hall (Big Hero 6), this new work is a huge win for representation but also contrivances in a sweet, beautiful, yet kinda predictable movie that's nonetheless joyful and such a vivid spectacle on the big screen.

That's right, this twice-vaccinated son of a bitch doesn't need no Disney+ to see this one. Though the choice of what goes where is strange. This was made a $30 premium rental but also in theaters, yet Soul went straight to streaming with no cinema play? Maybe I'll never see that likely Oscar winner. Damn. Eat shit, Disney. Anyway. This is a review for Raya and the Last Dragon.

In the fantasy land of Kumandra, made ruinous by evil Druun spirits who turn people into stone, the mythical dragons sacrifice themselves in order to save the populace. It's a magical orb that wards off the Druun, but also divides the people into five rival tribes which last for centuries: Fang, Heart, Tail, Spine, and Talon. Many moons later in the Heart land, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as a warrior, but with hopes all of Kumandra can reunite. She befriends Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of a rival chief of for Fangs, only to have that friendship taken advantage of when the Fang tribe tries to steal the orb the Hearts protect. As it shatters, the Druun return, with casualties among the tribes. As years pass, it's up to Raya to summon the legendary dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), who is said to have created the orb long ago, and her new friend Boun (Izaac Wang), to gather the pieces again and bring peace.

There's a lot of world-building in fantasy features like this that introduce brand new characters, stories, heroes, and villains, but Raya and the Last Dragon does it admirably. It's a lot to do. And unfortunately it begins with one of those lame narrations in the present where the main character goes "I bet you're wondering [blah blah blah] well let me tell you…" and I'm so goddamn tired of this cliché. But it doesn't stop there! Within minutes we have a cute tiny creature sidekick who squeaks his way into our hearts. Meh. Do something different, please.

I'm being picky, as there's more to love about what unfolds. Not only is it of course a big deal to have an animated Disney film with an Asian princess, it's also excellent to see a cast equally as representative of the culture on screen. No doubt that was made a necessity with a script by writers of Vietnamese and Malaysian descent, respectively, by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim. When I see a film like this and read articles that say upfront "I feel seen," it's a victory for those who aren't used to having them in big media.

But the movie has the same beats as others, from magic furry friends and dumb catch phrases and poor comic relief. I'm no fan of Awkwafina's comedy as she was the most annoying part of Crazy Rich Asians, but she is a talented actress as cannot be denied from her work in The Farewell. Here she reminds me a little of Robin Williams' role as the Genie in Aladdin, but lamer and less memorable. As a whole, this is an unfunny movie. Fortunately the action and spectacular visuals make up for the lack of humour.

Again, I wasn't expecting a masterpiece, but there's a mild disappointment in this fine but not great film. The same double-crosses as always, the same themes of "we can do this together," the same goofy animal buddies. But a story entirely featuring Asian characters, none of which are stereotyped or degraded, that's something to celebrate.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: theoneheathbar.

Added to The Narrative Films of 2021, ranked.

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