REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

raya_posterThe Walt Disney Animation Studio, pound for pound the most reliable entertainment bet in Hollywood, has struck gold again with Raya and the Last Dragon. This beautifully presented fantasy adventure should be a good bet to revive the fortunes of movie theatres around the world. More than that; it seems to be the heartfelt and enchanting tonic audiences need after a long, mostly miserable 2020.

The film takes audiences to the Southeast Asian-styled nation of Kumandra, split apart into rival factions and plagued by the nightmarish Druun. The warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) must travel to each faction and combine the five fragments of a shattered gem to restore the power of the last dragon. It is, it is fair to say, a typical quest narrative which children will find easy to follow and adults may find overly familiar. In practice it is filled with strong and delightful characters, superb action sequences, and stunning visual design. It is an immensely likeable, genuinely ‘all-ages’ film.

While it feels a Disney film through and through, it also feels markedly different to the typical WDAS production. It lacks songs, which is in itself not unusual any more, but it also has a strong Southeast Asian influence through its visuals, culture, aesthetic – and particularly its food. Much of this apparent authenticity seems to come from the film’s hiring choices: head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn, writers Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen, and so on. Disney did a fantastic job of representing non-white culture in Moana (2016), and they have employed the same mechanisms here: pro-active casting and hiring, consultation with community groups, and a multi-cultural ‘brains trust’.

This combination of Asian culture and heightened action appears to show off a strong influence from recent Chinese animated films such as Ne Zha (2019); it is not difficult to imagine Disney is targeting the potentially lucrative Chinese market and giving American viewers a fresh angle at the same time. Another difference is the maturity. While Disney animation and mild horror have been willing bedfellows since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), this time around some elements – notably the Druun – feel particularly threatening. Particularly young viewers may need a lap to sit on. Between the comedy and the threat there is a deeply effective and underlying sense of melancholy and loss.

The characters are wonderful. Raya is a strong and emotive lead, and The Last Jedi‘s Kelly Marie Tran is a welcome presence performing her voice. She is balanced with an excellent antagonist in rival Namaari (Gemma Chan). The supporting characters are likely to find the most love from viewers: particularly Awkwafina’s idealistic and upbeat Sisu, Raya’s faithful steed Tuk Tuk (WDAS mainstay Alan Tudyk), and the brilliantly named Con Baby.

The film’s cinematography is bold and inventive, and showcases the imaginative production design and colour work. The various action scenes and sequences are superbly framed and choreographed. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada have done a sterling job. Disney has such an enormous weight of legacy. Each new feature has such a high bar to reach to join its predecessors, and it is tremendous to see that once again that bar is cleared.

This is 2021’s first proper blockbuster release, and it is a positive sign for the year that it sets off so boldly on the right foot. It is opening in cinemas and via Disney+ premier access this week. If you’re seeing it with children, you are probably going to want to spring for premier access – they’re going to want to see it more than once. If, like me, you’re just an adult enthusiast for Walt Disney’s unparalleled animation, go for the theatrical experience. This film looks absolutely fantastic.

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