Released while "Soul" is still circling the awards circuit, Disney is back with another romp in the animated world. As someone who grew up on these substantive animated films, I was beyond thrilled at what "Raya and the Last Dragon" seemed to offer. While not as substantive as "Soul," the bar for animated films has been set to an impossibly high standard for 2021. Set in the fictitious world of Kumandra, we follow a warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), who is forced to look for the last living dragon who can hopefully restore her world.
I'll go ahead and say that yes, the film's MacGuffin is a magical rock that can fix everything. Lately, in most kid movies, a mythical item serves as the driving force behind the plot. These devices let the characters have a chance to interact; otherwise, we wouldn't have a movie. What makes "Raya" work as well as it does is the scope of this cultural melting pot of a story. Split into five different and distinct kingdoms that our characters have to venture to a variety of different worlds. With so many interesting pieces in the world, it's absolutely fascinating to watch the journey unfold.
Tran, as Raya, delivers the wide determined energy of a "Disney princess" (if you want to call her that) while also being tough as nails. It's not necessarily a new sort of character for a Disney film lead, but it gets the job done. When we meet the rest of the cast, including Akwafina as the mythical dragon Sisu, she brings such fun banter and energy. When the fun adventures begin with Raya, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't right along for the ride. Even over the typical Disney film, once this gang of characters is together reminded me of moments in an Akira Kurosawa film. This can include artistically shot action sequences involving swordplay.
There's so much attention to this world's details, including the creation of supporting characters in Raya's journey. Each of these different lands that Raya visits feels as if they have their own personality. It's so enjoyable watching this world unfold, and Raya and Sisu together make great guides. With all of these characters, you would think that an emotional connection would make things work. Like most Disney and Pixar films, you'd expect to be crying by the end. Thematically, that isn't the case because making you cry isn't what this movie is about.
If you're looking for any emotional catharsis that some Pixar movies can bring, that isn't this one's goal. Here is a film that deals with friendship and the trials and tribulations that come with it. Its other legacy ideas make for something that I can see being easily accessible and something families can talk about. There's a universality here of accepting differences that's quite fascinating to watch unfold. My biggest problem comes in how Disney is choosing to release the film.
Following an additional payment of $30 of Disney's "premier access" program feels too manipulative. Disney's biggest fans are a loyal group that would see just about anything Disney attached their name to. Adding a fee to a property that will eventually be free seems a bit redundant. While that isn't an issue with the film itself, it hurt my experience when realizing the limited ways people could see it. Also, premiering in theaters, if you choose to see it that way, I can't stop you. Though if you need to scratch that Disney itch, this is definitely a good one to keep in mind.
Watch Trailer Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1VIZ89FEjYI