Directed By Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa
Starring – Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan
The Plot – 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 to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
Rated PG for some violence, action and thematic elements
– Fantastical setting. With the gorgeous imagery and expansive mythology of Kumandra, Disney has once again done what they do best, in transporting us to a foreign land in ideals that simultaneously somehow feels every bit accessible to a world like ours. In this regard, this is where the film attains a lead by example approach to its deep-seeded messaging, in that we as a world could do so much better if we all united as one, and addressed the problems that continuously plague us because of personal greed or dissention. I love that the five divided landscapes of these lands each preserved a style and cultural substance that never feels like repetitive from the previous one explored. Likewise, each is enriched with a sense of traditionalism that outlines the pride and perseverence of its people, maintaining many unique and appreciated vantage points within the story’s grip that really helped flesh out the characters and their otherwise questionable motives. It breeds ambition and imagination cohesively, and transports us in ways that very few companies like Disney competently can.
– Detailed animation. Further fleshing out the country of Kumandra, in all of her exotic and breathtaking imagery is a versatile scheme of animation styles and three-dimensional designs that immediately grab ahold of audiences attention, and refuse to let go until even the post-credits are completed. Everything from the blowing motion in consistency of the trees and leaves, to the surreal circumference of the free-flowing water impressed me repeatedly, and with some impressive character trait designs stands as the most visually appealing film favorite of 2021 so far. It’s impressive enough that the bodily and bone structures of each character look nothing alike, but beyond that it’s the way their movements reflect authenticity in the form of gravity and all of her captives which is most impressive in choreography during sequences of physical confrontation. Everything is so rich in colorful texture and lighting exuberance that it immerses us vividly in the believability of the format, all the while giving Pixar a run for their money in the devil for the details that many contemporary animated films can’t triumph without.
– Delightful cast. Beyond this being appreciated for its tight grip on a female-led, mostly Asian ensemble, the vocal work of everyone included was rich in diverse personalities, offering a unique dynamic to their characters that made them stand out all the more apparent. This concept starts with Awkwafina, whose energetic deliveries and bubbly personality allow Sisu to stand out in ways other cherished animated dragon flicks never could, and when paired with Tran’s captivating titular character enriched a chemistry that was the best parts of the film for me personally. Tran’s Raya definitely feels like the culmination of this little girl who lost everything on one fateful day, complete with a touch of melancholy that persists just beneath the surface of her confident exterior. But every great protagonist needs an equally intriguing antagonist, and Gemma Chan as Namaari stikes with a determination and fearless repertoire that makes her just as fascinating in her own right, illustrating a rivalry between the two women that can easily be understood for the honorable intentions that each think they’re being motivated by.
– Riveting action. There’s much appreciation for what this four man team here exudes in their respective directions, particularly with the set pieces and tonal captivity that kept me invested even through a story that is occasionally predictable. The fight choreography lends itself to no shortage of vulnerability, but aside from that it’s the way the cinematography allows us to move with the characters, and engage in their pursuits that is most rewarding, granting us an urgency in tension and stakes that constantly hangs over characters’ heads without reminder. It gives the scenes of conflict a consistency in pay-off that feels like an exhilarating roller-coaster full of twists and turns along the way to its thrilling finish, saving those best moments of energy for the animation for the moments when its audience won’t be able to look away.
– Personal identity. Probably my favorite aspect of the film, and one that proves Disney and the production did their homework on the way to creating an experience for their company that was equally as faithful to kung-fu films of the 20th century as it was unique to anything else in their respective library of films. Such examples pertain to the film’s presentation, like quick-cut edits and camera pans that close up on a character’s preparation for the mission ahead. In addition to this, I also dug the sliding pictures and ever-changing aspect ratios that wonderfully played into the backstory exposition of this beautiful land. It’s not repeated often enough to where it becomes a gimmick within the film itself, but does pop up occasionally as an homage to the films that came before it, proving that “Raya and the Last Dragon” on a productive level, is every bit as traditional as the characters fighting for the honor of their respective lands.
– Tonally versatile. I see this one being a nagging problem with some audiences, but for me personally I felt that the compromise between child-like humor and adult-like action constituted a balance tonally that really worked well for the film. Being that “Raya” is a kids movie first and foremost, it would be nearly impossible in 2021 to persist without an ounce of cute animal characters or low-brow humor to keep them engaged. Thankfully, it’s not as obvious and dominant to the film’s 95 minute run time, but does successfully attain moments of breath for the audience who, for a majority, are continuously on the edge of their seats for the entire experience. Neither compromises the levity or impact of the other, and cements a rare experience for kids films that I feel the entire family will appreciate in one way or the other.
– An unshakeable edge. For my money, kids movies that treat kids like smaller adults without instilling nightmares to their sleep patterns are a rare breed, but “Raya” does so with dark risks that paid off well to the movie’s complex range of emotions. This is very much a world where characters are shot, humans are turned to stone, and consequences are attained in the form of this brunt physicality that is scattered constantly throughout. This is part of what makes Pixar kings of their domain for me, not necessarily in the violent realm of filmmaking, but rather their desire to attempt to tell a story with these very real everyday themes and conflicts that plague their youthful audience. In the same vein, “Raya” does so as well, forging a path for risky material without feeling exploitative, and it’s something that abruptly reminds us that not everything is fantastically rendered with this particular world inside of the film.
– Heavy handed. The exposition in this film is quite frequently annoying, not in its desire to illustrate the rich history of this environmental texture, but in how it leaves the rest of the film abruptly on pause during said storytelling. This wouldn’t be a problem if it happened once or twice throughout the film, but in doing this on four different occasions, it rendered my attention irrelevant for two minutes at a time, and made me want to reach for the remote for the fast-forward button, if not for some key detail in the story that would compromise my experience with the film. On top of this, nothing about its delivery feels naturally executed in the context of the character conversations, outlining its obvious predictable intentions in ways that we as a wise enough audience will know that it will inevitably pop into frame at some point in the film, otherwise why even mention it?
– Weakest link. With the first and third acts of this story duking it out for control of the best part of the movie, it leaves the second act feeling like the inferior party, due to some uninspired measures in production that created more obstacles than benefits. This is a story that was written by eight different writers, a fact that makes the four directors feel all the more normal when you compare them side by side, but one that still proved too many cooks in the kitchen is bad for the perfect recipe. In this regard, it’s with a video game mission format, complete with a necessity to attain objects, as well as the introduction and exposition of a new character every five minutes or so. With a 95 minute allowance, this can make those middle moments of the film feel unpleasantly rushed, and cater more towards plot instead of the unraveling of the storytelling, which is every bit as important, if not more.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+