There are a lot of things to love about “Raya and the Last Dragon.” The animation, as with any Disney movie, is stunning, their talent utilized this time to populate a world inspired by Eastern Asian culture. The score is composed by award-winning James Newton Howard. And it is a fun, action-packed adventure good for the entire family.
The movie follows Raya, (Kelly Marie Tran) whose world has all but been destroyed by the influence of the Druun, faceless monsters that turn humans to stone. She hunts for pieces of a magic dragon gem that can defeat the Druun and restore those afflicted to their regular selves. In order to retrieve it, it isn’t the Druun that stands in her way, but the very people she is trying to save.
The tension is mainly focused on the animosity of five divided tribes that used to exist as a single nation known as Kumandra. The Druun are relegated to the background until the finale, which is for the best, as the sense of danger they offer is somewhat weakened by the fact that we know the damage they cause will have no permanent effect. They act more as a reflection of the division between the tribes than being a threatening force themselves.
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the plot can feel very formulaic and predictable. Disney will always go for the time-tested strategy that ticks off all the right boxes. Some of the criticism this approach has received is in how they use other cultures to tell their stories. In some cases like “Coco” (2017) it can be done very well, but unfortunately “Raya and the Last Dragon’s” setting is used as nothing more than a fancy backdrop.
The humor also comes off as a cheap laugh, gaining an occasional half-hearted chuckle but never much more. To be fair, it is a children’s movie, but they will probably be the only ones to find much enjoyment out of gimmicks from the movie, like the Toot N Boom Beatle and the con baby.
The con baby, a character Raya meets in her travels, is emblematic of one of “Raya and the Last Dragon’s” biggest faults and that is their secondary characters. The only one with any depth is Sisu (Awkwafina) who’s giddy personality is one of the biggest highlights of the movie, but the shortcomings of the other characters are only enhanced by that fact. It leaves you wishing they developed more of what they had instead of cramming in these other rushed stories.
This movie contains a powerful message about trust and unity that will feel very relevant to many viewers. It can come across as not so subtle, almost like just another one of those boxes to be checked off and the ending is tied up in an all too perfect bow, but in the end “Raya and the Last Dragon” is exactly what you expect, nothing less and nothing more.