Raya and the Last Dragon Movie Review
Raya and the Last Dragon is another beautifully animated movie from the House of the Mouse, but despite featuring southeast Asian culture for the first time, there isn’t much new—let alone to enjoy—here.
There’s also a noticeable lack of dragon in Raya and the Last Dragon.
A mediocre though harmless Disney film, Raya is about a young woman, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), who joins forces with a dragon (Awkwafina) who can transform into a human who looks and sounds suspiciously like Awkwafina, to save the world from a dark, evil cloud force (note to filmmakers: never, ever make your ultimate villain an evil cloud force). Standing in their way is a fractured group of former friends-turned-enemies.
Raya looks absolutely fantastic. Brightly colored and gorgeously textured, the movie operates with incredible depth and visual appeal. When it breaks into action mode—most notably a few sword fights—it is jaw-dropping.
Further, it does a fine job of world building, opening up a compelling if dystopian land colored by complex, generally likable characters. Tran is superb in the lead role, and she is joined by a rich set of energetic characters who will coincidentally make for great toys come the holidays.
But if you peel away the shiny visuals and cultural elements (as a white American, I’ll admit I didn’t pick up on the nuances that separate what is shown here from other family-neutered portrayals of other Asian cultures), Raya is noticeably lacking real entertainment value.
The movie isn’t slow, nor is it without things that happen, but the plot is routine Disney, a standard, overused, and forgettable adventure story that comes off as surprisingly episodic, with little at stake (despite the world being at stake) and little real suspense. With four credited directors and nine or ten writers, Raya isn’t a mess, but it also doesn’t have a unified vision of what it wants to be. It’s serious at times, but also has cute and weird animals doing cute and weird things. It is clearly trying to be funny, but it isn’t; even a scene where a con artist toddler and her monkey pals pull of a Mission: Impossible-esque heist, you sort of just sit there amused but hardly inspired. The humor seems added on late in the game, perhaps attempting to bandaid a story that isn’t as engaging or entertaining as people except Disney cartoons to be.
One of the selling points of a movie called Raya and the Last Dragon is that it features a dragon. Kids may be disappointed to learn that the dragon isn’t a dragon for much of the movie and doesn’t do a whole lot when the dragon is, you know, a dragon. In reality, the “dragon” has a more nuanced, thoughtful reason for existing, which is all fine and good for the people looking for that kind of thing. For the rest of us, it’s not much to go on (and Awkwafina’s unique, gravely voice, is arguably not the right choice).
Disney should receive some credit for portraying a new culture in Raya and the Dragon, but it all feels a bit like vaporware. Like the Chinese-set, live-action Mulan, Raya has lots of flare but a lot more fizzle.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.