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Raya and the Last Dragon

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published March 3, 2021

Some of the animation and visuals are so exquisite, Raya and the Last Dragon should be seen on the biggest screen possible.

Imagine Dragons

Raya and the Last Dragon is loaded with gorgeous imagery and an inventive storyline full of nifty ideas. It’s a movie that transcends the traditional ambitions of animated fare with concepts and cinematic set pieces that put to shame the laziness of so many live action adventures.

The timing for the story couldn’t be better. It’s about a land torn apart, with its people divided into tribal allegiances further isolated by unique geographic barriers that create worlds within worlds. Topping it off, a plague of demons called Druun turned vast numbers of the population into stone.

That alone is quite a bit to unpack in a PG-rated animated movie from Disney, but there’s more. The scenario is remarkably well thought out and intricate. There are five lands — called Spine, Talon, Fang, Tail and Heart. Their geographic relationship to each other is not coincidental; from the sky, waterways form the shape of a dragon and those regional names are associated with the parts of the dragon.

Even better, though, is the nature of the backstory. As the demons turn their prey into stone, the resulting motionless effigies stand with palms open and facing up, as if ready to receive. It’s an element of foreshadowing that slickly plays into the story’s climax.

The trouble is the overarching theme of trust — a valuable one, no doubt — is overly simplistic, which can be extremely problematic in the real world.

A Matter of Trust

Amid all the minute details of the varying landscapes and accompanying lore, the through-line about trust is observed both visually and aurally. It’s clear — from land to land — everybody wants the same things: peace, family, love and prosperity top the list. It also goes with the territory that each tribe makes certain assumptions about the other tribes and their motivations. But, gaining trust is never a simple task and “bad actors,” so to speak, are always there to undermine the good work of others.

Part of the challenge in restoring Kumandra — the name of the original, unified land — is in bringing the various tribes back together to work against a common foe, the devastating Druun demons. To that end, Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim, Insurgent) invites leaders and other members of the tribes to a festive dinner. Of course, his good intentions are thwarted by those bad actors who see their own course of action as the path to peace and prosperity.

The story then picks up six years after that fateful dinner ended with a shattered dragon gem, the pieces spread out among the tribes. An older, wiser Raya (Kelly Marie Tran, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) sets out to collect the pieces and also search for the last dragon. The dragons — going even deeper into the movie’s lore — brought water and peace to Kumandra centuries earlier. All but one — at least as legend has it — were turned to stone.

As Raya moves from land to land and collects the gem fragments, she makes allies in her quest. At first, those allies aren’t particularly likable. For one reason or another, there’s something about them that seems off-putting.

For one, there’s Boun (Izaac Wang, set to star in a new Gremlins TV series). He’s a kid captain of a shrimping vessel, dubbed the Shrimporium. For another, there’s Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell), who — at first — rather disturbingly calls to mind the infamous Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Throw in a baby con-artist who leads a trio of monkey-like creatures called Ongi in underhanded trickery and deception while ripping off tourists in a floating market. There’s also a big, hulking warrior, Tong (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange).

What’s interesting is those characters turn likable and more agreeable as the story progresses and their interactions make them more familiar.

That’s where the recurring theme of learning to trust others comes into play. It’s a tricky message to try to teach to the youthful, inexperienced audience that is the movie’s key target demo. Trust is a great thing, a necessity in making progress in any number of life’s scenarios. But — and maybe it’s a particularly jaundiced, skeptical view — there’s a line to tread between blindly trusting everybody a child meets and the equally valuable message of never trusting strangers in this era of scams and scoundrels both in the real world and the online virtual world.

Dragon Nerds

Setting aside the challenge of tempering the message of trust, Raya is an animated feature packed with ideas and grand ambitions. It also takes some creative risks, particularly with the look of the legendary dragons. Stepping away from the traditional look of fire-breathing dragons as seen in virtually every other cinematic incarnation, the dragons in Raya feature a wavy body structure akin to the Chinese dragons of street parades. And — for better or worse — they sport furry manes that are a little too reminiscent of My Little Pony.

Countering that jarring association, seeing Raya speed through stunning landscapes while cleverly mounted on a giant roly-poly is a delight. Some of the other settings and situations are right out of Tomb Raider and even put to shame some of the globetrotting scenery of James Bond’s adventures.

It took a large village to bring Raya to the screen. There were four directors and a gaggle of eight writers. Apparently following the same mindset behind the creation of Moana, Disney formed a Southeast Asia Story Trust to curate lore and various cultural aspects presented in Raya.

But there’s something groundbreaking about Raya and the Last Dragon that could easily be lost in the movie’s visual splendor. It’s buried in the densely packed end credits. Working through the pandemic, it’s noted the movie was made from more than 400 homes. And, for the history books, within the credits roll, there’s this gem of a line we’ve all heard so many times during the past year: “Dude, you’re still on mute.”

On the flip side, the voice talent is practically buried in those end credits. While Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina don’t carry the same clout as James Earl Jones and Dwayne Johnson, it’s strange the vocal talent isn’t called out front and center as the end credits begin. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a nitpick. But, still, the treatment seems so off kilter.