- Movie Rating -

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

| March 5, 2021

It is not news to report that the destiny of the Disney Princess has been very swiftly shifting over the past few years.  Responding to the call to get with the times, the folks at Disney have responded by changing what was once a bevy of virginal beauties waiting for a Prince that she hardly knows has been replaced by daddy’s girl warriors whose trajectory is to save the world.  You’ve come a long way, baby.

It’s not a bad trope, really, the problem is that by this point you kind of have to give them a much greater motivation than simple destiny.  After Mulan, Moana and Elsa, the new feminist Disney heroine kind of needs a boost.

So, does Raya and the Last Dragon accomplish the mission?  Yeah, kinda.  I mean, the title heroine still follows the guidelines – she has a loving father, the land is cursed, she has to take a journey to fix a thing, and there are cute sidekicks.  Structurally, its not blindingly original, but this is not a movie about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The quickest summation that I can give to this movie is that it is very funny.  That’s something that I haven’t been able to say about a Disney animated feature since The Emperor’s New Groove back in 2000, and before that I have to go back to Aladdin.  I was smiling a lot and laughing a lot, and there’s one fantasy gag that made me laugh out loud – I won’t spoil it.

The other thing of note here is that there is no prince.  There isn’t even a romance, and truth be told, the movie doesn’t need one.  The closest thing to a handsome male protagonist is a 10-year-old who runs his own restaurant.  This is the story of a young girl trying to retrieve pieces of a talisman that will reverse a curse that has turned her people into stone.  Given that, there isn’t room for googly eyes and puppy love.  There’s stuff to be done.

The universe here is really clever.  Called Kumandra, it consists of several districts that are laid out like the body of a dragon, with region names like Fang, Talon, Tail, etc.  The world is under a spell that has turned half of the population to stone thanks to a magical gem that has been broken into several pieces.  Being the ever-confident woman of conscience, Raya (voiced with effervescence by Last Jedi’s Kelly Marie Tran) spends years trying to get them back.  The villain here is not one person but rather a mystical force called the Druun that turns people to stone.  The Druuns are something to behold.  They look like small electric storm clouds centered with balls of spectral light.

Thanks to the Druun, the world of Kumandra has also been robbed of it’s population of protective dragons, save for the one the Raya is searching for when we meet her after the fallout.  The last dragon is Sisu (voiced with comic zeal by Awkwafina).  She’s, well let’s put it this way, in terms of fiercesome dragon-ness, she’s closer to Mushu than Smaug.  Actually, I’m okay with that.  I like my Disney sidekicks a little on the goofy side.  Sisu isn’t the ideal dragon for this mission, but she’ll do.

Actually, Sisu is my favorite character in the movie.  Voiced by Awkwafina (star of my favorite movie of 2019, The Farewell), her distinctive voice and comic gifts give Sisu a daffy charm.  She’s like the slightly dimwitted best friend who is always there with a one-liner.  The writers know what a treasure they have in Awkwafina and they seem to let her run free with the character.  She has a fantasy sequence in the movie that really made me laugh.

The movie is very fast-paced.  We know the terrain, we know the trajectory and, yes, the movie moves toward them without a hitch.  The screenwriters Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen understand this and their solution is to employ cute sidekicks and a rapid pace of non-intrusive jokes that often pile one on top of another.  There’s a cute 10-year-old who runs a restaurant.  There’s a former warrior who has good reason for being ‘former’.  And there’s a baby that . . . I’ll just let you discover that one.

If there is a weakness, it may be in the dialogue.  It’s very jokey, but it also feels very modern, over-using current terms and phrases that pull you out of the realm of fantasy.  That’s not to say that I want it to sound like boilerplate fantasy gibberish, but maybe tone down the trendy phrasing – “I am such a dragon supernerd!” and “Girl, we got this!”

Even with that, I’ll say that I had a great time.  Yes, the movie trods familiar ground but somehow still feels new.  I felt as if I hadn’t been here before.  I felt as if I hadn’t met characters like Raya and Sisu before.  I knew the outcome of the story but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t consistently surprise me.  I enjoyed myself, and so the biggest surprise is that I want to watch it again right now.  That says something.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.