Raya and the Last Dragon Synopsis: Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. However, 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 (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down the last dragon (Awkwafina) and stop the Druun for good.
Disney’s animated empire boasts an affectionately timeless resonance, with the House of Mouse crafting generations of family-friendly entries to inspire the masses (putting aside Disney’s disastrous stretch in the mid-2000s). Now approaching a whopping 59th film, the studio’s latest project Raya and the Last Dragon connects to their tried and true narrative traditions inside a lushly-drawn fantasy landscape. While Raya doesn’t reach any revelatory heights, the film does extenuate the allures of Disney’s enduring sense of magic and creativity.
As 3D animation evolves into an intricate and astonishingly humanistic artform, each new project revels in a viscerally-inventive feast for the eyes. Raya is no exception, with directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada skillfully immersing audiences in Kumandra’s lively range of locals. Each setpiece sings with vivid detail and free-flowing framing, energetically zipping audiences along while establishing an assured sense of place.
For better and sometimes worse, Raya and the Last Dragon bears no pretensions in becoming significantly grander than its straightforward adventure pretenses. Under Estrada and Hall’s tutelage, the film maintains a sense of engagement through the lingering familiarity. A relentless pace keeps a wave of charismatic comedic characters and well-choreographed action setpieces flying at the screen with mostly winning results. I seriously can’t speak highly enough about tense combative frames, as each swashbuckling sequence holds precision akin to live-action features.
I also credit Raya and the Last Dragon’s dynamic cast for keeping the material above water. Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina are a delightfully playful pair as a well-matched odd couple. Tran’s gravitas morphs Raya’s quest into a personal odyssey for recovery, while Awkwafina’s bubbly comedic pop elevates even the most simplistic of gags. It helps that the two are surrounded by an equally-personable supporting cast, with Benedict Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, and Gemma Chan enhancing their worthy roles.
Even with my enjoyment, it’s a letdown to see Raya’s narrative settle for relatively sleight goals. The film never stretches towards any meaningful thematic dynamics, settling on earnest yet thinly-veiled ruminations about trust and empathy’s essential connective powers. Emotionally, Raya’s sturdy arc rarely receives proper moments of reflection. This film desperately lacks the kind of soaring, iconically open-hearted sequences that made revered classics like The Lion King and Mulan stand the test of time.
Still, Raya and the Last Dragon mostly shines throughout its agreeable runtime. Disney fans are sure to be delighted by this film’s deft mixture of humor and adventurous frames.
Raya and the Last Dragon premiers in theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on March 5th.
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