Sunday, June 20, 2021

Movie Review: "RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON" Has Lovable Characters

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 41 of 2021 (No. 1779) by Leroy Douresseaux

Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Running time:  107 minutes
MPAA – PG for some violence, action and thematic elements
DIRECTORS:  Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada with Paul Briggs and John Ripa (co-directors)
WRITERS:  Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim; from a story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, and Dean Wellins
PRODUCERS:  Peter Del Vecho and Osnat Shurer
EDITORS:  Fabienne Rawley and Shannon Stein
COMPOSER:  James Newton Howard


Starring:  (voices) Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Jona Xiao, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Song, and Alan Tudyk

Raya and the Last Dragon is a 2021 computer-animated fantasy film from directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada and is produced Walt Disney Animation Studios.  It is the 59th animated feature film in the “Walt Disney Animated Classics” line.  Raya and the Last Dragon is set in a magical realm where a young princess searches for the whereabouts of the last dragon in order to save her world.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens in the realm of “Kumandra.”  Five hundred years earlier, Kumandra was ravaged by the “Druun,” a mindless plague of evil spirits that consumed life and turned everything and everyone they touched into stone.  Kumandra had been made prosperous by the presence of dragons, magical creatures who brought water, rain, and peace.  The Druun manage to petrify all the dragons, except the last one, “Sisudatu,” who used a magical gem to banish the Druun.  However, a power struggle for the “Dragon Gem” divided Kumandra's people into five tribes:  Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang.

Five hundred years later, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe trains his daughter, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), in the fighting skills she will need in order to become a “Guardian of the Dragon Gem,” like her father.  Benja also steadfastly believes that the five tribes can be united, so he decides to hold a feast for the leadership of all five tribes.  During the feast, Raya is betrayed in a plot to steal the Dragon Gem, but this leads to the gem being broken into five pieces during the scuffle to possess it.  The four other tribes each steals a piece of the gem, which reawakens the Druun, who promptly go on a rampage and begin turning people into stone.

For the next six years, Raya and Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), Raya's best friend and trusty steed (a mix of an armadillo and a pill bug), continue their search for the resting place of Sisudatu, also known as “Sisu” (Awkwafina).  After she finds Sisu, Raya must obtain the other four pieces of the Dragon Gem so that Sisu, the last dragon, can revive Kumandra.  Joining Raya and Sisu are the boy captain, Boun (Izaac Wang); a warrior from Spine, Tong (Benedict Wong); and a toddler con artist, Little Noi (Thalia Tran), and her trio of monkey-like companions, the Ongis.  But standing in her way is an old rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan), and the land of Fang.

Honestly, Raya and the Last Dragon would be little more than a version of The Lord of the Rings based on Southeastern Asian culture, myth, and religion … if not for this Disney's film's great characters.  Every character, from Raya and her friends to her rivals and enemies, is honestly wonderful.  I couldn't get enough of them.  I think Namaari, both the child and older version, should have her own stories.  I could see her as the star of her own movie.  Little Noi and her Ongis are so cute that they make it impossible for me to really find fault with this movie.  Noi and her monkey-like companions are the kind of great supporting characters that only the magic of Disney storytelling can create.  Boun is also adorable and wholly capable of having his own stories.  Benedict Wong gives the most layered and nuanced voice performance, in a film full of exemplary voice performances, in creating Tong as a fully developed, three-dimensional character.

Kelly Marie Tran, who was a social media punching bag over her role in the Star Wars “sequel films,” does as much as Raya and the Last Dragon's great animators in making Raya a believable hero on a journey of learning and of discovery.  Tran transforms Raya into a great female hero, on par with the best live-action female action movie heroes.

Like the typical Walt Disney animated feature film, Raya the Last Dragon has gorgeous animation that moves in seemingly impossible ways, and the colors are dazzling.  The themes of trust and hope permeate this film and feel genuine.  I will say that Kumandra's basic concepts and myths feel contrived.  I expected something different and more imaginative from a film inspired by Southeast Asia.  Still, Raya and the Last Dragon is dazzling entertainment.  And like the best Walt Disney animated classics, I see it having a long, long life, entertaining generations of movie audiences.

8 of 10

Sunday, June 20, 2021

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