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Raya and the Last Dragon
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by Jay Seaver

"Adventurous and entertaining."
5 stars

As Disney cranks out two or three live-action remakes of their animated per year, they will inevitably catch up to the point where they started this practice, and I wonder if that ever crossed the minds of those making "Raya and the Last Dragon". It is, maybe not coincidentally, the sort of grand and fantastic adventure that only animation can manage right now - and genuinely terrific at being that - but where one can maybe see a slightly older-skewing version that surrounds actors with more photorealistic CGI coming in ten years. It won't be necessary or a likely upgrade, even if it is inevitable.

One would be surprised if the filmmakers weren't aware of the possibility, considering the wink with which Raya's opening narration notes that the lone swordswoman crossing a desolate land on a quest is a possible too-familiar setting. After a flashback to seven years earlier to see how the world as she knew it ended - we get back to the business of Raya (voice of Kelly Marie Tran) trying to find the last dragon in Kumandra, since the dragons were the ones who stopped the Druun when they first appeared hundreds of years ago, though at great cost. She does awaken Sisu (voice of Awkwafina), only to discover that said dragon is far less powerful and more down-to-earth than expected, and though she gains powers when exposed to fragments of the shattered Dragon Stone. Each is hidden within one of Kumandra's five city-states, all dangerous in this post-apocalyptic world, even without Raya's nemesis Namaari (voice of Gemma Chan) looking to settle a score.

Raya may talk about this as being standard adventure-story material, but it's not the sort that's typically been the fodder for kids' adventure movies, though it's nothing new to kids who have grown up on Adventure Time and the like. It's impressive how well the large creative team lays out a fair amount of lore across multiple eras without it taking up too much story time, especially since the film doesn't switch things up for songs the way that many of Disney's movies do. It's at times a little odd that the language often feels more Twenty-first Century than fantasy-world, but it keeps things moving smoothly.

It also means that the filmmakers are free to pack the movie with eye-popping visuals and impressive action, taking not just visual cues from Southeast Asia but also the action; when Raya, Namaari, and others have to fight, martial-arts enthusiasts will see bits of muay thai, silat, and vovinam, not exactly athletic in an animated feature but certainly giving the animators a chance to have people moving in fun and sometimes new ways. They also get a chance to do nifty things with the fantastic elements, from the whimsy of Raya's giant pillbug Tuk Tuk (who sometimes feels like both a sci-fi mutant and a cheerfully larger-than-life bit of fantasy) to the almost completely abstract Druun. It's especially fun to see what they do with Sisu's design when she gains the ability to shapeshift; both dragon and human forms have a messy look that matches Awkwafina's vocal performance well, but the latter fits while sort of looking off-model, not looking wrong but also not entirely blending in.

The fact that the Druun are inhuman forces of nature lets the filmmakers mostly dispense with conventional villains in a way that a lot of family-friendly movies try to do but can't quite manage. Raya and Namaari are fierce rivals in a way that can be more harsh than typical in part because the film doesn't have to back down and explain why someone isn't really bad, and it's impressive how the animators and voice actors Kelly Marie Tran & Gemma Chan echo each other in how both are confident and capable until they have to deal with each other, which brings a lot of tension to both voice and body language. The pairings of Raya with both Sisu and Namaari are good enough that it's clear that the fairly sizable supporting cast doesn't have nearly the same amount of attention lavished on them; and it's a lot of sidekicks when the movie needs more equals.

It's only a slight unbalance compared to the string of sheer fun and creative adventure that the bulk of the film represents. It's a big, grand, clever adventure with the sort of constant invention that animation does better than anything else right now. Maybe there will be another iteration (though it's kind of strange to start speculating on that already, even if that may be where Disney seems to be heading), but in the meantime, it's one of the most exciting and adventurous things that their feature division has done in a while.

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originally posted: 03/25/21 13:13:38
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  05-Mar-2021 (PG)
  DVD: 18-May-2021



Directed by
  Paul Briggs
  Dean Wellins

Written by
  Adele Lim

  Kelly Marie Tran
  Daniel Dae Kim
  Gemma Chan
  Cassie Steele

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