I’m certainly of two minds on this one.
What They Say:
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. But when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the last dragon in order to finally stop the Druun for good. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than dragon magic to save the world–it’s going to take trust as well.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
As the first (and hopefully last) day-and-date release of one of Disney’s famed ‘Animated Classics,’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” makes for a particularly interesting case study. Visually the film is stunning to behold and shows why Disney is still considered one of the premier destinations for quality animation. Though many will see this movie on Disney+ (for a $30 ‘Premier Access’ fee) I saw the film on an IMAX 3D screen, and everything about the film screamed “EPIC!” The world that was created is lush and beautiful! The characters had more personality in their eyes alone than most animated features. Throw in full movement from animators who have been producing quality animation for decades, and you have characters that are brimming with life and personality (especially from the title characters…one who gets all this in two forms)! This might not be a colorful movie (considering the barren wasteland), yet when things call for it the colors are eye-popping!
Needless to say, this is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen. Where the digital release makes sense is that the screenplay is pretty much on autopilot; all the beats are there and I enjoyed many parts of it, but it falls far short of the greatness of recent Disney classics like “Frozen” and “Zootopia.” In that sense, bringing the film into everyone’s homes on day one seems like an admission that the movie isn’t great in the way you’d expect Disney movies to be. There are many things to praise about the film. I gushed about the animation in the previous paragraph, however other notable aspects include the wonderful score by James Newton Howard and the fact that Disney is keeping their promise to make more diverse films. At the end of the day though, I’m not certain how many times I’m going to want to revisit a film in which a warrior collects pieces of a crystal because (say it with me): it’s the only thing that can save the world.
I know that I typed that last sentence with a bit of sarcasm in my voice, but the reality is there is almost no other way to state it without rolling your eyes. Disney films tend to be best when they focus on the characters and not the journey. Although they do have a ‘Lion King’ in them every other decade, most of their movies that involve characters going on long, complicated quests (“Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Treasure Planet”) can probably best be described as “fine” from most people. For “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the title character Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a strong warrior who is on a quest to collect the shattered pieces of the Dragon Gem. A powerful stone that when activated by a dragon hundreds of years ago, brought peace to the land (until everyone started fighting over the leftover scraps).
After years of searching Raya finds the dragon – Sifu (Awkwafina, in what turns out to be inspired casting) – and the two go on a quest to collect the gem pieces and save the world from a dark force known as the Druun. And if you’re still reading this and finding it hard to bring yourself to care, I can assure you that this is all more interesting than it sounds…just not by much. The film tries to do some unique things that previous Disney films haven’t done. Cute side characters exist, but their screen time is minimal. There is no love story. The twist villain is passed over this time, yet there is a twist with the film’s primary antagonist (Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan) in that she has misguided goals on how to save the world (rather than wanting to rule it). Again, this is all serviceable and enjoyable in its own right, its just not anything particularly special or revolutionary.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” proves that Disney can still produce a satisfying film, yet the movie marches to the beat of a drum we are all too familiar with. The film premiering on Disney+ seems more like an admission of guilt from the studio rather than a sign of the changing times, yet for some paying to see it on a smaller screen seems appropriate for such a small film. I believe the film works much better visually on the big screen, yet even that cannot compensate for the small heartbeats. It is the first Disney film since “Big Hero 6” that I can safely say is “good but not great.” However you decide to watch it, I am confident the experience won’t linger, and kids will be begging to re-watch “Moana” before you know it.
Streamed By: Disney+