Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

“We could use someone like you.”

Ferociously fun from time to time, a bit too aimless in spots, and gorgeously animated through and through, Raya and the Last Dragon delivers the goods in an expectedly solid yet overall underwhelming endeavor. We know what’s going to happen. We know what’s to come. It’s inherently predictable if you’ve seen anything previously stamped with the modern Disney seal of approval. And to make matters worse, this latest picture prioritizes the settings over well established emotional depths or values. It looks incredible and has its fair share of warm moments, but Raya and the Last Dragon rarely ever feels memorable or even that thematically original. It’s good and well and fine. That’s it and that’s all.

In a welcome change of pace, the film wastes no time when it comes to establishing the spelunking Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, the beating heart and soul of this endeavor), a curious adventurer and amateur paleontologist destined to protect her people from embattled and fractioned kingdoms. She’s less Lara Croft or Indiana Jones and more Moana, a young woman tethered to a home she holds dear while still wanting to see the world outside her immediate surroundings. To find the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, who sounds a little too imitative of Genie à la Robin Williams for her own good), to explore the old myths that could very well unite deeply divided and selfish sects of people who rarely act out of malice, but more out of concern for those inside their own borders. In that respect, Raya and the Last Dragon is a reflection of the now and the then and hopefully not the always.

While I enjoyed the film as a whole, and became less interested the more distressed and forced and familiar the story beats became, Raya and the Last Dragon somehow still manages to pack a candid, colorful punch. One of the better aspects of the engaging yet occasionally overwrought film, so obviously written by a lengthy crew and co-directed by Don Hall & Carlos López Estrada, is how the picture immediately submerges itself in the mythos of its Asian inspired folklore tales, making for a story that’s too still during its attempts at stoicism, yet is also one that presents a decent balance between the yin and the yang. The film looks revolutionary from a technological POV, and yet the story is practically perfunctory material. It’s aged and worn stuff in a shiny package. And there are too many of the little moments missing to help support, highlight, and elevate the big ones.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a clear cut example of a picture where the ending is better than any part of the journey to get there. The message is beautiful, emotional, and I’d even call it vital for the now. After all, it’s hard to argue against selflessness and the trust necessary to form and to find real unity. I just wish the movie didn’t feel so rushed, that the blocky structure of the script matched the intricacies of the visual design (I could easily be convinced that the water here is real), and that the supporting players had more than a single character trait on their respective toolbelts. The pathos and the ethos are there in equal measure; what’s missing is the carefully considered logos. This rocky road treat may be, as it was for myself, too sweet for most savor or even recall. All of the components are there for a great family oriented animated feature film, but this one – while bold in its Asian inspirations – just feels too redundant and routine to leave a lasting impression. It’s pretty good. More original writing might’ve made it pretty great.

“It’s about trust.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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