Raya and the last Dragon is a gorgeous piece of modern animation from the studio that still does it better than anyone. And it’s also finely tuned family entertainment from the studio that does that better than anyone.
Putting those two things together, however, frequently results in surface-oriented fun with little beneath that surface because all the text has been thrown in the viewers face to make sure they don’t miss anything. Disney usually gets away with that through sheer dent of charm, but Raya’s focus on action-adventure storytelling pushes the film into a darker direction that doesn’t always have that advantage.
And it knows it, starting with a tongue-in-cheek monologue about a lone warrior wandering an apocalyptic wasteland, the warrior in question being Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) who is on a quest to find the last dragon and save Kumandra from the deadly Gloom. Cue an extended flashback detailing the sacrifice of the dragons to save Kumandra hundreds of years earlier and their gift of a magic sphere to keep the world safe after they were gone.
When decades of infighting between the nations of man break the sphere into pieces, the Gloom takes over the world with no hope for reprieve. Or so everyone believes but Raya, who is certain if she can find the last remaining dragon and reform the sphere she can not only save the world but bring back everything that has been lost including her father.
It won’t be a great to surprise to reveal that Raya does indeed discover said dragon, a happy-go-lucky water dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) who is appalled at the state of the world and how humans have fought one another. She is literally the lone source of light in the film, the only character not driven down by the hopelessness of continuing after the end of the world, and for a long time the only one capable of imagining a world beyond the literal Gloom they face on an everyday basis.
Much of Raya’s drama is Sisu running headlong into darkest elements of human nature as if attempting to change her mind about the worth of the world. Raya herself, though also refusing to give in and accept the world as it is, faces her challenge with more of a gritty determination than a hopefulness.
She knows people are awful, but she’s so focused on her goal she doesn’t care beyond keeping herself safe. It is Raya, more than anyone else, who constantly challenges Sisu’s view of human nature and is so constantly amazed when her view is wrong.
Not that she doesn’t have good reason to feel that way. The breaking of the world and the loss of her father happened right in front of her because she once trusted someone — Fang warrior Naamari (Gemma Chan) — who is still trying to get her piece of the sphere from her. It’s as close to externalizing the conflict of Raya as the film gets as most of it is heavily internal to the point where the evil that must be defeated is literally an undefined, uncharacterized blob.
The nature of the film requires this to be directly explained so that no audience gets lost, but that dulls the edge as well. More than that, it’s an ultimately uplifting view of humanity trapped in an action-adventure movie which doesn’t always serve its main point well partly because theme is often trumped by set piece but also because the reliance action beats requires Raya to constantly have her action heroine facemask in place.
That’s a particular loss with Tran, who is very good at the specific kind of voice acting animation requires — she was the best thing about The Croods: A New Age — but Raya doesn’t take full advantage of those skills. That all makes Raya sound worse than it is.
It is a very fun action-adventure story with gorgeous animation from the best in the game and an interesting core theme. It’s also got all the bells and whistles of classic Disney Animation right down to the lively supporting cast of characters to provide comedy for Raya’s straight-woman, snappy patter and its colorful magical sidekick.
But the focus on being an action movie first, and the particular type of action movie it is, robs Raya of some of its potential charm in place of more generic thrills.
Disney has tried this type of experiment before and it didn’t go so well. Perhaps this time will be different.
RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON REVIEW SCORE: 7/10
Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, Raya and the Last Dragon will be available in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5, 2021.