REVIEW: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is an enjoyable, mythical ride

Swords, princesses and dragons aren’t exactly new to Disney animated films. But how they’re portrayed here in “Raya and the Last Dragon” is somewhat refreshing.

The movie follows the story of Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), a young woman exploring a rather desolate land that is made up of five tribes. In the past, the land was much more tranquil and lively, but an event between the five tribes led to an important stone being shattered, which led to the release of evil beings which can turn people to stone.

Only a legendary dragon named Sisu can destroy the evil by putting magic back into the stone once it’s back together. Early in the film, Raya does succeed in finding Sisu (voiced by Nora “Awkwafina” Lum). However, a larger task is getting all of the stone pieces, each held by leaders of the different tribes, and none of them trust each other. Raya and Sisu set off on adventure to accomplish this task, though.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” does in fact offer audiences an exciting adventure, but it has some stumbles along the way, too. The movie is at its best when it is exploring its mystical elements or when it digs into the characters and their views on the world as it is and how they want to move forward.

The film is weaker, though, when it leans into some of its humor. Whether its antics by the side characters or some of Sisu’s lines, the film just feels like it’s leaning too heavily on its comedy.

That’s not to say the film should be completely serious at all. It’s just that the humor doesn’t feel in tone with the rest of the film at times and comes across as out of place in others.

This direction makes it feel like it’s going down too similar of a path we as an audience have already seen a lot of in Disney movies.

rayadragonblog
Courtesy Walt Disney Animation.

Likely the biggest contributor to this is the film’s supporting characters. “Raya and the Last Dragon” feels like it should be an adventure with just Raya and Sisu, with maybe just one other character.

However, as the movie goes on, several additions are made to the roster, and they somewhat weigh down the movie.

Most of the additions, from a warrior named Tong (Benedict Wong) to a baby thief, Noi (Thalia Tran), feel more like comic relief caricatures, rather than fully realized characters. In fact, a welcome change would have been eliminating these characters to give more focus to Namaari (Gemma Chan) who’s Raya’s antagonistic rival.

They have sort of a dynamic similar to that of Aang and Zuko in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and seeing that expanded would have been nice.

When the movie does hit its emotional beats or delves into the intrigue of the world’s lore or Raya’s character arc, though, it really shines. These scenes are true highlights that bring the movie up a lot.

Even with some issues “Raya and the Last Dragon” is an above average animated feature and it’s strongest moments only help enhance the experience.

It also helps that Raya, voiced quite well by Tran, is a great adventure protagonist. The character has a good balance of optimism and realism, making her complex and interesting to follow.

Sisu meanwhile, is basically the classic magical Disney sidekick, similar to Maui in “Moana” or the Genie in “Aladdin.” Not entirely the most original character concept, but a reliable one at least and executed fine in this picture.

Maybe the most credit for “Last Dragon” is the animation team. This movie looks stunning, from the environment to the characters, everything looks gorgeous.

The attention to detail given across the board is worthy of praise and how they brought the action scenes to the screen is incredible. The movie is a visual treat from start to finish.

“Last Dragon” hits a few snags but Disney still delivers a good movie with this feature. The animation is phenomenal and the lead characters hook an audience in. It’s a fine entry for the animated genre. 3.6 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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