Raya and the Last Dragon is the latest animated feature from the monolithic Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Animation Studios. It focuses on the quest of one young princess as she tries and saves her father, her kingdom and the whole world by finding the last dragon in existence. By finding this dragon our intrepid hero hopes to bring balance to the world and drive back the malevolent Druun.
This is Raya and the Last Dragon, and it is phenomenally competent. This film ticks all the boxes that an adventure needs. In doing so sadly you’d mix up its premise as well as its characters with any other modern adventure film or out there. It also draws its inspiration from so many other more compelling sources that you immediately recognise the beats the story takes.
Druuns, and dragons and humans oh my
For example, the world is separated into multiple kingdoms, five to be exact. Each of them has its own vaguely distinct characteristics. The most distinct feature is the colour coding. Raya’s kingdom Heart is blue, Talon is purple, Tail is tan, Fang is white and Spine is green. As well as this visual cue, there is also the fact that Raya is searching for the last dragon hoping to bring balance back to the world.
Sound familiar? Well, it should if you’re a fan ofAvatar: The Last Airbender. The motivations of the kingdoms and characters in Raya and the Last Dragon are a watered-down version of Avatar: The Last Airbender and to a more depressing degree, Studio Ghibli’sPrincess Mononoke. However, unlike these stories, any sense of danger or urgency is blunted. It’s almost as if directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada didn’t want to truly deliver anything more than a nursery rhyme story to their viewers, even though there is potential for something truly meaningful in the narrative. After all, within this story is a message of unity and trust. That with these tools you could save the world.
Unfortunately, the story never capitalises on these because there’s no sense of danger. The Druun are basically purple farts that turn people to stone. Another aspect the film never fully utilises is its cast. Kelly Marie Tran’s Raya is supposedly a world-weary figure but she never sells that aspect. There is also Awkwafina’s Sisu. If you’re a fan of Awkwafina’s comedy stylings then you’re in for a treat. If you’re not well Sisu is a very pretty dragon. The only other character that gets a lot of screen time is Gemma Chan’s Namaari. She is the antagonist of the film and is easily the most interesting character. Her reasonings for chasing Raya and her background as a character is quite compelling. But once again the film doesn’t focus on the more intriguing elements of the film, instead staying in safe territory.
Thankfully the film does have several key elements going for it. The animation is stunning, the fight scenes (though infuriatingly brief) are a treat to watch. There are also the phenomenal colours on show whenever Sisu the titular last dragon is on screen. Her showcase of powers mixed with the lush backdrops will put a smile on your face. There is also the entrancing score that elevates every aspect of the film. Whenever the characters enter a new locale you feel the personality of said locale thanks to the expert musical composition.
Walking away from the adventure
Ultimately, Raya and the Last Dragon is an infuriating film. At times I was excited to see where it would go but with it desperately trying to teach a lesson instead of just telling a compelling story it loses so much. Even the characters are an afterthought. Each character that Raya meets on her journey has one trait and if they had been expanded upon further they could have been truly memorable.
Raya and the Last Dragon will be on Disney+ on March 5th across the world. You will have to pay for it though, similar to how you had to pay for Mulan. And if you’re wondering, I’m going to give you the same answer I did with Mulan, wait for it to be free.
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