'Raya And The Last Dragon' Review: Young Warrior Must Find A Magical Dragon To Save Her People
The definition of ''Disney movies'' has become a bit more blurred as of late due to all the acquisitions and restructuring by the company but by not counting the franchises and Pixar's output specifically, it's been quite a while since the last decent entry as far as my personal experience goes. 2018's 'Christopher Robin' is what comes to mind immediately and the reason why this all is so convoluted is because now 2021's Raya And The Last Dragon, directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, manages to break that drought once and for all.
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a young female warrior in a world's part called Kumandra and she is set out to find a dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina) in order to reassemble a magical item which keeps evil spirits away from Kumandra, those evil spirits having trapped Raya's father a few years back. That is perhaps the most simple way to describe the story which goes 100 different places too and while there seems to be slightly too much for the movie to handle, it's still extremely entertaining and flashy so some of those things won't bother you too much.
Despite mentioning only three characters there, the film just doesn't run out of characters or voice roles at any point. The execution is a mixed bag as Tran really brings the spark to Raya, her intonation particularly is very relaxed which is a nice change of pace regarding the animated movie space and a total contrast unfortunately to Awkwafina's work as Sisu. The whole time I was reminded that there is an actor voicing the character so I was constantly being pulled out of scenes, it's really just Awkwafina doing Awkwafina things which is a disservice to the magical and otherworldly setting. Gemma Chan who voices Namaari, Raya's former friend and current rival warrior (maybe a bait-y love interest too, am I right?), is much more aligned with Tran's work and you'd wish there was more of their interplay.
A big highlight is whenever we get to their fight sequences which are absolutely terrific; they're actually grounded (no unnecessary superpowers), nicely cut and paced as well as showcasing their respective character traits. It's surprising how few spectacular fight scenes animated movies have had in the past after seeing these ones.
Stunt choreography is just one of the points of strength cinematically in ''Raya'', one big takeaway should be the gorgeous, resplendent lighting which might very well be the best work animation as a medium has ever offered. Natural light, practical light, even supernatural light from the dragon, they are all beautifully used to emphasise the effect of scenes. It's realistic at the right moments and aggressively animated when there are fantastic elements introduced. Aspects that are traditionally considered cinematic are all splendid so it's frustrating to see that the movie itself does play out like eight people are credited for its story (spoiler: eight are credited).
There are long pauses where characters are stuck explaining everything going on, the humour is bland and many of the characters just don't work here. The random baby (Thalia Tran) is unnecessary and frankly annoying with her sidekicks and the young boy, Boun (Izaac Wang), is stuck with that bland humour alongside Awkwafina's Sisu. Raya and Namaari are the heart of the story and the film doesn't seem to focus on them enough because of the other distracting side characters.
Smileys: Lighting, stunt choreography, Kelly Marie Tran
Frowneys: Awkwafina, humour
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