Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon ★★½

Okay so what must've happened was, right before setting down to write this thing one of the writers decided to try beef jerky for the first time, only to immediately spit it out and go, “PHEW! What the FUCK is this shit? What the FUCK is THIS SHIT?!?!? This is TERRIBLE! WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT HOW TERRIBLE THIS IS?!?!? That’s it, I gotta work this into the movie somehow…”

Anyways, yeah, that was decent. Definitely not worth the $30 or so extra to see it early on Disney+ or whatever it was, but still, decent. I’m actually glad I waited for its brief cinema run to see this, since by far the best thing this has going for it is it’s visuals. The way I figure it breaks down is, animation-wise, this thing belongs on the big screen, but in terms of story, pacing, and worldbuilding, this thing is very straight-to-streaming. Just to clarify, I mean that as an insult.

Starting with something that would normally be a strong positive for me, but which I actually think works to the film’s disadvantage: the short-ass running time. One of my major sticking points with the modern movie landscape of today is how every single movie needs to be bloated to at least 45 minutes longer than it needs to be - MCU and assorted superhero movies being chief offenders in this regard - so the idea of a 90 minute Disney animation was very appealing to me. Only, the film tries to cram in way too much. This has not one, not two, but five whole nationalities to introduce and explore, with the only correlating factor being that 1) they originally came from a Pangea-like continent, and 2) everyone's wearing Waluigi shoes.

There’s like a near-constant deluge of expositional dialogue, that's being delivered well into the second and third acts. And what’s especially grating about this overload of exposition is that, try as they might, the worldbuilding never comes to life. This is a similar problem faced by last year’s Onward, another film that looked nice on the big screen but was just pure streaming-service in how it executed its story; both these movies have pretty-looking landscapes that never feel real, never feel lived-in. The location is just a clothesline to hang the plot off, and the plot is very rote, populated by characters who are likable enough (with the exception of a very annoying dragon, played by Awkwafina doing a sub-Robin Williams Genie type thing; look, it's better than Will Smith in the remake, but not by a whole lot), but even they feel too formulaic by half.

None of the characters feel deep enough to drive the story, which is especially disappointing when you consider that this co-directed by the guy who did Blindspotting; then again, the other director was the Big Hero 6 guy, another movie I though was less than the sum of its parts. That's the main thing; the too-formulaic feeling is indicative of a wider problem with the way the story plays out, which is that there are a handful of great individual moments and elements - there is some SHOCKINGLY good hand-to-hand and sword fighting in this movie, like something you'd see in a South Korean actioner even - but precious little cohesion to keep it all together. This movie feels like a checklist, with characters who go places and do things because the plot demands it, and it feels like that's what's happening. And the truly good 3D animated Disney flicks - Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen - are able to achieve a level of immersion so that the world feels more real than that. This doesn't; the most unique personality this has is that everybody's wearing Waluigi shoes.

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