‘Raya And The Last Dragon’ review: a middling TV show masquerading as a full-length film

An attempted subversion of Disney’s traditional princess story that forgets the fundamentals

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    Disney’s fail-proof formula for a princess movie is well known: there’s the song that serves as a grand statement of intent or desire, the undeniably evil villain, the talking animal sidekick and the love interest. But all that – mostly – goes out the window with Raya And The Last Dragon, the entertainment conglomerate’s first new original (read: non-sequel) animated film since 2016’s Moana.

    Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, who rose to fame as Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is a warrior princess who sets off across the post-apocalyptic fantasy world of Kumandra, which is allegedly inspired by Southeast Asian culture. She’s on a quest to collect shards of a magical dragon gem from the five feuding clans in order to restore Kumandra to its former glory. Along the way, she unwittingly gathers a ragtag team of supporting characters, including goofy water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), all the while hunted by a nemesis princess named Namaari (Gemma Chan).

    There’s also something about Sisu’s dragon siblings, another thing about soul-stealing purple monsters called the Drunn, and, oh, about 500 years of history between the various clans. All that is explored in detail during the film’s very lengthy prologue, which is told beautifully with animation that draws from wayang kulit puppet theatre. But at the end of the day, it’s still just exposition – exposition that directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada spend a notable amount of the movie’s runtime on.

    When Raya finally gets into the meat of the plot, it feels stifled due to the almost episodic story structure. The film falls into a rhythm: viewers are introduced to a new clan, Raya faces a small obstacle but gains a new ally, Sisu messes up somehow, the group face a big obstacle, but eventually get the gem shard and scarper for the next land. Rinse and repeat.

    At worst, the structure feels akin to cherry-picking and mashing together key episodes from a long-running television series – which Raya could have been, given the sheer amount of worldbuilding that has gone into it. The film feels like a mini-series that you binge once and forget about (and its premiere on Disney+ won’t help matters). The clumsy, constant resets that Raya’s story is forced to undergo kill any momentum that has been built and undermine the film’s climax.

    Raya And The Last Dragon
    Raya. Credit: Disney

    There’s also a problem with the movie’s tone. Raya And The Last Dragon wants to be a serious story about how terrible and selfish humans can be when we don’t trust one another, but that gets lost buried under the disproportionate levels of comic relief. The film uses comedy as a way to familiarise the audience with the increasingly farcical number of supporting characters, but due to the sheer number of them, Raya comes across more like an extended joke with plot points sprinkled between.

    The worst offender is Awkwafina’s corny and awkward character, the water dragon Sisu. It’s obvious the filmmakers had hoped for Sisu to enter the Disney sidekick hall of fame alongside greats like Mushu, Hades and Genie – but the character falls woefully short. While the actress has proven that she can be a gifted comic actor (and a good dramatic one as well, as The Farewell showed), but when it comes to improv, she’s no Eddie Murphy, no James Wood and certainly no Robin Williams.

    In trying to emulate the success of the Disney Renaissance, Raya also carries over the tonal inconsistencies of those films. But without a strong enough story nor a comedic actor that can pull off this very specific brand of improv, Sisu comes off as a joke machine that’s there to banter with the protagonist when there’s a lull. What Raya truly needed was a relief from comedy.

    Raya And The Last Dragon
    Sisu and Raya. Credit: Disney

    On the other hand, Sisu is a nice nod to general East Asian mythology, where dragons are creatures of water and not fire. But that’s the thing: the references only scratch the surface. There are cultural touchstones here and there, like when Raya’s tribe welcomes other clans by playing the gamelan, or when our heroine wields a keris and Arnis sticks instead of a sword. But there’s nothing connecting the supposed Southeast Asian influences to the events of the movie, which can be attributed to the fact that the film is set in a made-up fantasy world (unlike Coco or Moana). Ultimately, it feels like inconsequential set dressing: very pretty, but not to be confused for representation or diversity.

    And speaking of prettiness – Raya’s saving grace is its undeniably gorgeous animation. From the photorealistic water effects and breathtaking landscapes to the intricate outfits and captivating colour palette, every frame is a feast for the eyes. The standouts are the mouth-watering shots of different foods, from tom yum-inspired stew to shrimp congee. Raya also thankfully steps away from the overly child-like character design of more recent Disney films – unlike Anna or Elsa, Raya and Namaari actually look like young adults.

    Raya And The Last Dragon
    Namaari. Credit: Disney

    The voice actors (in spite of the casting controversy) must be given their due as well, especially Tran and Chan, who voice the protagonist/antagonist duo and share the burden of giving the film some semblance of emotional weight. Their characters also receive the most memorable moments in the film: three thrilling hand-to-hand combat fight scenes that earmark their intertwining internal journeys.

    For better or for worse, Raya And The Last Dragon is not your traditional Disney princess story. It ambitiously tries to subvert those tropes by going against the grain with a dark narrative about human mortality and selfishness. But the film forgets storytelling fundamentals, instead jumping the gun with a mishmash of influences that leads to an uneven plot and unsatisfying finale.

    Details

    • Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall
    • Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan
    • Release date: March 5 (Disney+ and in cinemas)
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