Movie review: 'Raya and the Last Dragon' (2021)
Before we start talking about the movie, due to the pretty unusual circumstances still happening in the world right now, we need to discuss what options are available to watch it. (With apologies to our non-North American readers, for whom none of this may apply.)
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, streaming has been the obvious or only way to watch movies reviewed by Flayrah. Raya and the Last Dragon, however, isn't free to stream right now. You'll have to pay Disney+'s $29.99 'Premier Access' fee, or buy a ticket at a theater.
Currently, this reviewer recommends the Premier Access route. It's more expensive, but factoring in the ability to re-watch it, group watching, and ongoing pandemic concerns, it feels a safer bet.
Anyway, Raya and the Last Dragon is from Walt Disney Animation Studios; directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, it stars Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu, the titular last dragon.
The story takes place in the fantasy land of Kumandra, once united, now divided into five smaller lands, each named after a part of the water dragons who once lived there (Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon). The dragons were all turned to stone by evil blobs of purple fire known as Druun. The last dragon, Sisu, was able to use a Dragon Gem to banish the Druun and save humanity from suffering the same fate; apparently at the cost of her own life, though there are rumors she survived.
Not really a spoiler, but Raya finds Sisu alive fairly quickly. The main plot involves Raya and Sisu retrieving the five shattered Gem pieces, which are held by the chiefs of the five tribes. Each of the gems give Sisu a new power. An early one is transformation, which is convenient for hiding her, and a bit disappointing for furry fans who'd like her to stay her dragon-y self.
Along the way, Raya befriends members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes. Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang tribe's chief, is the primary villain; as a child, she betrayed a younger, more trusting Raya in an attempt to steal the Dragon Gem from Heart, but only caused the gem to shatter and the Druun to return. Now, as an adult, she's tracking Raya in an effort to see what use the pieces of the Gems have.
Sisu is voiced by a comedian, but she's never really as over-the-top as say, Eddie Murphy's Mushu or Robin William's Genie, two of Disney's previous and more obvious examples of this role. Which is not to say that Sisu's not funny; she has her moments. She's quick to point out that although she may be the last of the legendary dragons, she gained that status more or less by default, and wasn't even the one to create the Dragon Gem she's famous for. She explains all dragons have a magical talent, and hers is… swimming, which seems redundant for a water dragon.
I appreciate Sisu's character design. Some reacting to the trailers seemed to think it was a bit too cartoony and, well, cute, compared to most of the other characters, and that's true. She's furry rather than scaly, and the fur's animation is technically great, but in close-up she looks more like a plush animal than a flesh-and-blood creature. The look suits her, because she really doesn't fit into this world, full of people with trust issues. The fact that she's a giant, plush, seafoam-green water dragon also makes her stand out. It works.
The movie in general has great creature design. The world of Kumandra doesn't have regular, Earth animals. I like Namaari, and the steeds of her Fang warriors: giant, horse-sized cats. The human characters are a bit more realistically-proportioned than normal for Disney, especially Raya and Namaari. Both of their one-on-one fights feel surprisingly violent for a Disney movie, partially due to their character design, but also due to how such fights are rare in Disney productions to begin with. It's helped by the two characters' emotionally-charged history.
This is the best that Disney's done since Zootopia.