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Raya and the Last Dragon – Movie Review

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Raya and the Last Dragon – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Animation has been on an impressive hot streak over the last decade and a bit. Part of this comes from the studio’s willingness to try different stories with various approaches. Sometimes, we get the traditional fantasy musical the studio is known for. Other times, the filmmakers craft a high-concept comedy. Raya and the Last Dragon has them tackling a pure action-adventure and the result is an entertaining tale with plenty of imagination. Using South East Asia as a setting, the movie handles its drama with the needed pathos, while also including a number of fun situations for the characters. Directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada and their team successfully build this world and the fascinating mythology surrounding it.

The filmmakers don’t waste time in showing the stakes and there’s an immediate investment in Raya’s journey to reverse a curse that has turned people to stone. One clearly understands her motivations and her distrust of certain people. The movie very quickly becoming a team-up movie with Sisu the Dragon also works in the film’s favour. These two characters go through well-developed arcs as they each cope with the difficulties they’re seeking to overcome. One might expect them to be a mismatched pair, which is common in Disney animated movies. However, Raya and the Last Dragon presents a different approach by having both wanting to work together in a common goal. Any issues that arise come from differing ideologies and one can understand each character’s perspective.

Sisu presents much of the film’s humour, too, and Awkwafina’s vocal performance is delightful. Many of the jokes do hit and the animators deserve credit for her energetic facial expressions and movements. The film also succeeds in showing Sisu’s sadder side and Awkwafina proves just as adept in the dramatic scenes (to the surprise of nobody who saw her performance in The Farewell). There are other supporting characters Raya and Sisu meet along the way. They initially serve as comic relief, but much like Sisu, the layers are eventually revealed and we see the pain they’re feeling inside. The journey they take allows the artists and production designers to come up with a variety of locations that are distinct and we understand the history of these places perfectly.

Raya and the Last Dragon features a lot of action scenes as Raya battles with her adversaries. While some may tire at the large amount of them, the choreography is brilliantly realised by the animators and Hall and Estrada make great use of the camera. Fabienne Rawley and Shannon Stein’s editing help give the action the required intensity, too. Through it all, Raya presents a worthwhile message about teamwork and the absurdity of neighbouring nations fighting one another. The movie won’t change the world, as it’s difficult to break apart these decade long animosities between regions. However, it’s a good concept to present to anyone watching with the hope it might impact the future in some small way.

The film ultimately delivers in its primary goal of being a creative adventure that brings us to another world and gives us characters to root for. The on-screen personalities are given a lot of depth, making it even easier to be invested in the conflict. The filmmakers balance the tones exceptionally well, so it never becomes jarring when jumping between the comedic bits, the action set-pieces and the dramatic, quieter moments. Raya and the Last Dragon also presents another example of how successfully Disney Animation has combined two filmmaking cultures, with Don Hall being a long-time Disney story artist and Carlos Lopez Estrada coming from the world of live-action directing. It’s certainly an exciting time for the studio and this movie is further proof of that.

Note: Theatrical screenings of Raya and the Last Dragon include a short film titled Us Again (coming to Disney+ in June). Directed by Zach Parrish, the story isn’t anything too spectacular, but it works thanks to the excellent dance choreography of the leads.

Stefan Ellison
THE SCENE