Is it too much to ask that Disney just animate a full-blown action movie at this point? Cuz judging by the fight scenes in this one, it’d be well worth it.
Following a young woman named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) as she travels across the divided land of Kumandra, Raya and the Last Dragon is an epic fantasy tale of a world where humans and dragons coexisted before a group of evil spirits, the Druun, laid waste to their society and shattered the lives of the people in it. Taking it upon themselves to ward off the Druun and revive the people they had forcibly turned to stone, the dragons of Kumandra use their magic to seal away the Druun’s evil for good, but at the cost of turning to stone themselves. Now, centuries later the Druun have made their terror known again, and only Raya and her dragon/human companion of Sisu (Awkwafina) can put them back in their place, revive the remaining dragons and save the people of Kumandra along the way.
First things first: this movie is hands down one of the most beautifully animated films Disney Animation has ever put out. From the near photo-realistic (possibly even too realistic) environments, to the detailed texture effects, to the life-like facial animations, this movie is a benchmark in computer animation and should be hailed as such. Whether Raya and her ragtag group of friends are simply having a conversation or partaking in any number of wildly impressive fight scenes, this film shows off its visual strengths at every opportunity it gets, giving the overall look of the film a highly impressive and attractive sheen that never disappoints.
Joining Raya on her quest to redeem herself from an incident that saw her bungle the protection of an ancient orb of power, Sisu is first and foremost a dragon that just so happens to have the means to turn herself into a human. And while the general idea for this character is sound, the fact that Awkwafina and the script itself gave her way too many “pop-culture” lines in an attempt to what can only be described as making the movie more “relatable” for a younger generation of viewers, is something that simply doesn’t end up working and is a misstep that was a near constant issue for me throughout. This fact is only further apparent whenever Sisu is in dragon form mostly because for as good as Awkwafina is in the human version of the role, her voice and dialogue just didn’t jive with me when she was dragon-ing it up, a problem that could have been overlooked if Sisu either stayed human the entire film, or the script gave her a little more to work with.
Other than my personal problems with the Sisu character (in dragon form only mind you), the overall idea of having dragons be a main focus in this movie outside of their necessary story implications seems like a plot beat that wasn’t entirely needed. Not only are the designs of the dragons simply off and boring to me, but the mythology and utilization of the dragons throughout the film always felt like dull point that never fully felt fleshed out or truthfully needed over the course of Raya’s journey, a shame considering the rest of the world-building was actually pretty stellar all around. In all honesty, and while I didn’t particularly dislike any of the other characters in the film i particular, I’d rather have Raya hoofed it solo for most of the runtime, as her character and story arc are the most interesting and fun elements to watch with her stand-out fight scenes adding even more to a character I most definitely want to see again.
So while Raya and the Last Dragon does a lot right in terms of its animation, action and story progression, there’s enough awkward missteps throughout that hold it back from being even better. I think a second viewing would help soften some of these edges knowing how Raya’s journey will eventually play out, but first impressions are a big thing, especially where the entire dragon angle is concerned. That being said, I honestly did enjoy this movie, and although it might rank high up on the list of best Disney Animation films to have come out in recent years, an inevitable sequel should surpass this one easily. And for that thought alone I’m excited to see where Raya will end up next.