When you finish a movie, there’s a chance you might not know how to feel about it. Maybe you needed time or even a rewatch. However with certain movies, you get a clear opinion on the movie the minute the credits start rolling. ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is one of those movies for me. As a massive Disney fan and animation enthusiast, ‘Raya‘ failed to be anything other than a perfectly average Disney movie. It’s by no means a bad movie but it sticks to the formula so strictly that it becomes painfully generic. There is definitely a lot of positives to find in ‘Raya‘ but overall, the movie never justifies it’s existence as a Disney movie. It’s a step above ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’ and arguably better than ‘Frozen II’ but only because it’s cohesive, the recent creativity of this studio is a level below Disney’s standard of imagination.
SPOILERS FOR ‘RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON’ ARE INCLUDED IN THIS REVIEW.
‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is an incredibly fast-paced adventure which treats the audience as if they have the attention span of a toddler. The movie starts out with an upchuck of exposition and by the twenty minute mark, there’s a betrayal and a tragedy. The first act feels like an adventure video-game and it’s not necessarily an insult but I rarely felt like I was on a journey with these characters. The first twenty minutes feel like an opening cutscene which you can’t skip and the rest is boring gameplay. I say boring because there are no real stakes. There’s rarely a sense of genuine danger because you know for a fact these characters will end up alright and even if something did happen there wouldn’t be that big of an emotional punch because we don’t spend enough time with these characters. The pacing reminded me a lot of the Disney Renaissance movies which were much shorter but they packed an emotional punch because they were musicals. In those movies, you get a good sense of the character and there’s an instant connection. It’s a way to get the audience to care as quickly and as effectively as possible. I never really felt a connection to any of the characters, most of them don’t develop at all. Raya and Namaari’s dynamic is interesting but it’s never properly explored well or given the time it needs to feel rewarding later on.
A reoccuring thought I had watching this movie was that it would’ve worked out incredibly better as a show on Disney+. That being said, this movie lacks such an original identity that it wouldn’t feel compelling enough to span an entire season. The ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ influences are very apparent but it’s not the only franchise this movie borrows from. There is this very fun nod to Genndy Tartakovsky and ‘Samurai Jack’ in the opening action scene with the way it’s shot. It looked stunning especially paired with the gorgeous animation. The thing is they never run with it, it felt like a nod and that’s it. The rest of the action sequences are fun to watch but there was such an abundance of it that it got tiring after a while. The concept of the Kumandra and the lore of the Dragons and the Druuns feel familiar but the movie pulled it off in a way that makes you want to know more. I feel like this is a movie where the sequel has the potential to outshine the first movie and stand out as it’s own entity. The world of Kumandra looks stunning but when a movie is this fast-paced, there isn’t much time to stay and explore each nation so it felt more like a tease than anything else. This world that they built would make for an incredible open-world video-game.
The cast does a wonderful job bringing these characters to life. Kelly Marie Tran is excellent as Raya, she’s a character that I’m sure everyone wants to see more of in the future. Despite this first entry feeling rather mediocre it definitely has the potential to continue and become something special. Awkwafina is surprisingly great as Sisu the Dragon. Not all the jokes land but when they do, they’re hilarious. I loved the parallels between Raya and Sisu and how the theme of trust is portrayed. That being said, for a movie targeted towards children, trust is a very complicated subject to preach on. In Kumandra, the people are portrayed as incredibly selfish and greedy and there is a this layer of assumption versus reality which was pretty well executed. The characters Raya teams up with seem shady at the start but then you learn more about why they’re like this and you understand them. However, when it comes to Raya and Namaari, it’s more complicated than that. Trust is something that is earned and if it’s lost it’s incredibly hard to regain, it’s important for children to know that it’s not that easy to trust someone who hurt you. Raya’s feelings are completely valid and I feel like the movie should’ve made a bigger deal about their reconciliation. Namaari saying that Sisu’s death was equally her fault was really manipulative of her, she never made an effort to show her that she’s changed so of course Raya is going to act hesitant and not trust her. The third act is easily the best part of the movie and the climax was really moving, it would have had a bigger emotional impact had the movie developed their relationship more.
Overall, while ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ has the potential to become something special in the future, it’s a bit underwhelming comparing it to the other movies in this new era of Disney. It lacks the originality and emotional punch that Disney Animation is known for. It’s not a bad movie by any means and it’s definitely entertaining but when you consider how far animation has come not with studios like Pixar and I can’t believe I’m saying this but Sony Pictures Animation, it makes this movie feel like a lower effort from what is arguably the biggest animation studio in the world. After ‘Ralph Breaks the Internet’, ‘Frozen II’ and now this, I really do hope that Disney starts experimenting more not only with it’s visuals but with it’s storytelling. ‘Raya’ isn’t necessarily a step back but it’s not a step forward either, it’s just there.