Raya and the Last Dragon Review

by Alaisdair Leith.

After what feels like an eternity since we had a blockbuster film from the House of Mouse, Disney are back with their first major release in cinemas in a year and it does not disappoint. The film has multi-layered characters, an engaging story and a beautiful message that the whole family will connect with. 

The film is set in the magical South Eastern Asian land of Kumandra, a thriving and lush city that rely on dragons to bless it with flowing water and its inhabitants to live in harmony. When an evil force called Druun take over and turn all of its inhabitants into stone, including the dragons, the seperate clans drift apart and fall into ruin. There is one last gem remaining that is protecting all of Kumandra from the Druun rising up again, when it falls apart it is up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to unite the broken pieces and find the last dragon rumoured to be laying dormant in a river. If only life was this simple, Raya’s father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) attempts to unite the clans with a disastrous result which sends Raya on her quest. 

That is about as spoiler free as I can be with the plot and most of this is told in the first seven minutes of the movie through a gorgeously detailed shadow puppet montage that heralds back to films I watched as a child. The detail given in this sequence is a stand out amongst the gorgeous computer animation the film offers up. What struck me most is the design of the dragons themselves, they don’t look like a fierce, intimidating typical design, it instead reminded me more of Falkore from The Neverending Story films. There is a definite warmth and affection for these dragons, but when Sisu (Awkwafina) wants to be scary and intimidating, she can switch is up easily. 

The rest of Kumandra is gloriously detailed in computer animation. While it is unlike anything we have seen before from Disney, the amount of detail in the environment really make it feel and look like a real place. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the water. We have seen some great looking water in films like Moana and Universal’s Abominable, but what the team have delivered here is unlike anything you have ever seen before. There are moments where the camera pans and lifts and your eyes are fooled into thinking that the background is real, particularly in the city of Heart. The character designs for the humans in this film also are notable with the two leads Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan) morph from children to adults is arguably the best animated interpretation of adults in a Disney animated film to date. The aesthetic and complexity of their looks and design reminded me of Uma Thurman’s The Bride in Kill Bill. The low brimmed hat, the sweeping blanket coat and sword is a clear homage to this character. This is echoed when Namaari and Raya battle it out with sweeping landscape shots as the camera whips around the action in time with the stunted choreography. 

At the start of the film, the first act feels really stereotypical of Disney, something happens to a child’s parents to force the child into a quest to save the world. There is a cute adorable accompanying animal who doesn’t talk (here it is Tuk Tuk voiced by Alan Tudyk) and a threat that only the protagonist can overcome. This all plays out in the first 25 minutes of the film leaving me bitterly disappointed. Fortunately the films directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada address this and then quickly whip it around revealing the characters flaws and how they can overcome this to work together to reach their goal. Raya has serious trust issues that progressively get worse as she heads into the real world, Sesu seems way too trusting and positive, Namaari is full of pride and is obsessed with making her mother proud at any cost. Tong (Benedict Wong) has lost his daughter to the Druun and wants to see his village flowing with life again. There is so many layers to all of these characters, it stands as the most detailed and attention given to any characters in an animated Disney film to date. 

All of these combine to create a fellowship to retrieve the stone pieces and restore the five factions to be one again. While each character has their own motivations and reasons for doing so, they must all overcome their doubts and woes to get to the point where they are ready to do this. There is a lot of time and attention given to this notion and is what truly turned the film around for me. I laughed (ALOT! Awkwafina is a comedic legend!) I cried and I found myself truly excited about movies again. 

Raya and the Last Dragon is a crowning achievement in Disney animation, not only in story but visuals as well. The incredible story and characters combine with beautiful visuals that will blow you away. If you are in a position to head to the movies (and you feel comfortable doing so!) grab your friends and family and head to the cinemas to see this masterpiece. 

If you are still hesitant about heading out your door to a packed cinema of strangers, Disney are releasing the film on Disney + through Premiere Access for $34.95 (similar to Mulan). If you are concerned about bang for buck, this is something you will want to watch more than once so don’t be concerned about this. 

Raya and the Last Dragon premieres in theatres Thursday and comes to Disney + Premiere Access on Friday. 

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