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It was really something to sit down and watch a movie at the cinema again. Leading up to watching Raya and the Last Dragon, I had gone to see Pixar’s Soul the week before. Both experiences got me thinking about personal standards, and what kind of movie should be prompting audiences to return to the big screen.
Raya and the Last Dragon makes a good case. It’s a great watch and upends some stereotypes with the traditional Disney formula (though leaving some annoying ones alone).
What is Raya and the Last Dragon about?
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is a young woman originally destined to lead alongside her trusting father (Daniel Dae Kim).
That is before she is left betrayed and broken in a world where warring factions have torn the land of Kumandra to pieces.
The 500-year old evil woken up by the conflict isn’t helping the situation either.
To bring the people together and defeat the evil, Raya sets off on a journey to discover the last-surviving dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina).
It’s an adventure across Kumandra as Raya sets out to explore dangerous landscapes, team up with some colourful characters, and ultimately regain an important ability: trusting people.
Trust Disney to make a good-looking movie
It has practically become redundant to talk about the quality of Disney animation. Unless stylized for a certain effect, their visuals are second to none.
There are details such as flowing water and chips in stone statues that are so impressive when you notice them.
In terms of setting, Southeast Asia looks colourful and inviting. The premise of the film lendis itself to a variety of landscapes and scenery.
Ramen has never looked so enticing (there’s a lot of food talk in this movie. Not a criticism, it was just painful for some of us at the screening).
While the 500-year-old evil may not have the most unique design, it’s still appropriate and sinister enough.
The movie also gets points for James Newton Howard’s theatrical score. It’s arguably his best since Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Great themes, despite a straightforward story
Raya is a jaded Disney princess, disillusioned by how the world has treated her while fighting to bring hope back to it.
It makes for a compelling story. Instead of the two extremes of a damsel in distress, or a flawless character devoid of vulnerability, Raya contributes to a theme rarely explored in children’s storytelling.
There is a lot of distrust in the world right now and showing that trust in others is sometimes vital is commendable. As well as showing how trust is something that can propel others to do the right thing.
Though with that said, the overall narrative is very formulaic. There were moments when I thought Disney would throw in a new curveball. But all of it turned out pretty predictable.
What keeps you watching is Raya and some very diverse members of her eventual travelling party. I especially love the addition of young boat captain and restaurateur Boun (voiced by Izaac Wang), who bucks the trend of boring adolescent Disney sidekicks and delivers a lot of charisma.
The voice acting is all up to standard, with Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina both having great range (despite Awkwafina being saddled with script shortcomings).
They are backed up by a stellar cast made up of Wong, Gemma Chan, and Sandra Oh, whose additions do a lot for the authenticity of a movie set in Asia.
The devil’s in the writing
If there is one major issue to be had with Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s the dialogue.
I can forgive a formulaic plot thanks to the characters, but not the odd throwaway pop culture gag.
For example, Sisu the dragon makes a quip about being the kid in the class group who never did any work. Stuff like that impacts your narrative and how immersive it is.
It also does nothing for a world that you’ve built that feels extremely epic and fantastical. One that lends itself to less comedy and more intensity.
You can have jokes, but make them fit better with your story and setting. The rest of the writing could also have been a bit sharper.
The central message is really on point and it needs the dialogue to hit it home.
Awkwafina’s Sisu is the biggest victim of this, despite her being very likeable and delivering on the more intense moments.
Raya and the Last Dragon review verdict
Raya and the Last Dragon is commendable for its many positive elements.
The dialogue and predictable plot are Disney acting to its detriment, but it’s not enough to damage this fun and sincere story.
Raya herself is a wonderfully thought-out and unique Disney princess backed up by a very likeable entourage of side characters.
Together, they set off into beautiful and thrilling sunsets across Kumandra.
Raya and the Last Dragon will debut in South Africa on March 19.
Image credits: Disney