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REVIEW – “Raya and the Last Dragon”: Refreshing, Hesitant Disney Adventure Among 2021’s First Theatrical Triumphs

In the pantheon of quality that is Disney Animation, we may still be blessed with either a renaissance period to possibly rival its 90s counterparts and we’ve reached a parallel to Tarzan. Or we’re starting to sense a slight lull in the vein of Dinosaur and/or Emperor’s New Groove. It may be hard to tell in the 2020s since the artistry and their enthusiastic approach to storytelling have proved to be more consistent than in past eras. With as much panache and relevance as we’ve seen in their current endeavors, original or sequel, Raya and the Last Dragon feels like a winning home run, albeit with a laidback flair. Their 59th release is an equal time capsule of the studio’s oft-skittishness in original, non-musical territory, and a never-dull exercise in unexpected friendships built by breaking old habits. All while laid against the backdrop of what could once have been mistaken for a Kurosawa film whose dial was turned down to keep the youngsters interested.

But that needn’t be a problem, its martial arts western template should serve as rocket fuel to young minds eager to explore deeper into cinema. That idea goes into overdrive from the offset, establishing a great deal of exciting lore. There’s the expansive kingdom, named Kumandra. A land long inspired by the wisdom of dragons, and more recently separated into five equal territories. At the center is our heroine, the plucky Raya (Kelly Marie Tran). A budding fighter advocating peace among worlds. Her father and sparring partner, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is equally supportive if not a trifle hesitant they can restore their kingdom to what it had been in the past. Once a thriving realm where mythological beings lived side by side with humans and the world around them. Nowadays, a skittish set of communities ravaged by eras of seething mistrust. The effects further compounded when Raya’s own defenses are violated when a priceless artifact is broken and then snatched, prompting a quest on her behalf as a lone warrior.

Roaming the deserts atop her giant pet, an armadillo/pill bug hybrid named Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), Raya remains diligent on the hunt to retrieve those missing pieces. Upon discovering her first lead, she eventually collides with the manifested spirit of the last surviving dragon. Enter Sisu (Awkwafina), a snarky though compassionate sidekick with some transformative ability and the spirit of her fallen siblings. She and Raya may not always see eye to eye; and yet, their friendship could be as endearing as others the Disney canon had immortalized over time. Aladdin and the Genie, Hiro and Baymax, Robin Hood and Little John, to name a trio. Names who had known not just to make us laugh, but to learn from each other on a delightfully outlandish journey.

Co-director Don Hall has once more led a merry brain trust of talent developing this veritable tale, which he shares writing credit on with fellow Big Hero 6 scribe Paul Briggs, Carlos Lopez Estrada (Blindspotting), Qui Nguyen (The Society), and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) among others. Suffice to say, it took quite the village to shape this almost risky endeavor, introducing the studio’s second Asian female animated lead to an understandably pandemic-weary audience. And banking its plot base on a most relevant theme we’ve fought with for the past year, often without realizing it was happening. Selfishness and personal gain take the driver’s seat here, even our leader can be guilty of that, a hefty flaw for some but a workable idea to repair for others.

Deeds of mistrust, and unlocking that sense of suspicion, is a most prominent concept we see thru Raya in her plight, and in Miss Tran’s full-throated vocal performance. Having been a victim of deception, she carries her reservations. Only to detect that wall being broken down thru the aid of both friends and enemies, equally unsure of where they stand. For Awkwafina, the actress whose wit has raised the game in many respects, the role of Sisu appears very well in hand. For as much of a chance it was for her to branch out into animation, we see that balanced opportunity for her more tender side to peek out again, not unlike her role in The Farewell, but in a criminally smaller dose.

That much could be said as well toward the rest of the supporting players, underdogs outwitted by the cycle of falsehood, headlined by gruff soldier Tong (a delightful Benedict Wong), and dapper young chef Boun (Izaac Wang). Not to mention some nonverbal felines from an entirely cat-crazy city, and some mob triplets. Only in a Disney movie can such hijinks fly, and the laughs appear so genuine. I bear no shame in how much I was laughing with the well-executed gags.

At the same time, there were a few spots where the film’s narrative struggles to maintain a high emotional oomph, particularly in the third act. And it’s just as likely our antagonists, Princess Namaari (Gemma Chan), and her mother Virana (Sandra Oh), while determined to trap Raya at her game much like in a prior encounter years before, do not quite evolve as quickly as most villains in the company’s canon could before our eyes. The film’s sense of humor and danger make up these slight differences, running both under a rather electric pace that seems nice enough for youngsters’ adrenaline, but perhaps a little too fast for this veteran fan. That only adds deeper into its genre mashup stew, propelled further by a James Newton Howard score which feels so much at home with his musical work on Atlantis, Waterworld, and his time spent in Elton John’s touring band.

Where Raya and the Last Dragon wins out best is with Miss Tran, whose vindication after a trying time in the Star Wars saga is all but assured. She’s very much the real deal, focused but never lacking in energy as this adventure plays out. Quite possibly a new Disney favorite in the making, it’s as whimsical as it is grownup. Affirming as it is comical. Rousing as it is narrowly solemn. Slight story stumbles aside, the film’s idea of reunion and healing against sustained issues of situational control, that’s where it pulls itself back together, cautiously. Soon to play out before screens of varying sizes as quite the visual feat whose technological majesty is best expressed in water (the larger the screen, the greater the impact), Raya is a true treasure. One to behold, and one to be shared. The Disney animation we’ve known to really roll with an original story has returned, and hopefully, it can stick around a little longer. (A-, 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

If you do plan on the theatrical route, get there early for Zach Parrish’s fantastic short Us Again, an all-too-brief aperitif speaking to the rigors of aging and why every moment spent with a close loved one can often seem like a dance step. Hard to move forward without taking at least one step back, and in this seven-minute piece, a very colorful R&B landscape may be all that’s needed to express that love. (A; 4/5 Horns Up!)

Raya and the Last Dragon will open in theaters and at home on Disney+ with an additional “Premiere Access” fee Friday, March 4; do note Us Again will be only part of the initial theatrical run and is set to debut on the streaming service in June. Please be safe if you plan to experience both in theaters, follow your local cinema’s and CDC guidelines; rated PG for some violence, action, and thematic elements; 115 minutes.