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Movie review: 'Raya and the Last Dragon' (2021)

Edited by dronon, GreenReaper as of 09:35
Your rating: None Average: 4 (5 votes)

Raya and the Last Dragon Before we start talking about the movie, due to the pretty unusual circumstances still happening in the world right now, we need to discuss what options are available to watch it. (With apologies to our non-North American readers, for whom none of this may apply.)

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, streaming has been the obvious or only way to watch movies reviewed by Flayrah. Raya and the Last Dragon, however, isn't free to stream right now. You'll have to pay Disney+'s $29.99 'Premier Access' fee, or buy a ticket at a theater.

Currently, this reviewer recommends the Premier Access route. It's more expensive, but factoring in the ability to re-watch it, group watching, and ongoing pandemic concerns, it feels a safer bet.

Anyway, Raya and the Last Dragon is from Walt Disney Animation Studios; directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, it stars Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as Sisu, the titular last dragon.

The story takes place in the fantasy land of Kumandra, once united, now divided into five smaller lands, each named after a part of the water dragons who once lived there (Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon). The dragons were all turned to stone by evil blobs of purple fire known as Druun. The last dragon, Sisu, was able to use a Dragon Gem to banish the Druun and save humanity from suffering the same fate; apparently at the cost of her own life, though there are rumors she survived.

Not really a spoiler, but Raya finds Sisu alive fairly quickly. The main plot involves Raya and Sisu retrieving the five shattered Gem pieces, which are held by the chiefs of the five tribes. Each of the gems give Sisu a new power. An early one is transformation, which is convenient for hiding her, and a bit disappointing for furry fans who'd like her to stay her dragon-y self.

Along the way, Raya befriends members of the Tail, Talon and Spine tribes. Namaari (Gemma Chan), daughter of the Fang tribe's chief, is the primary villain; as a child, she betrayed a younger, more trusting Raya in an attempt to steal the Dragon Gem from Heart, but only caused the gem to shatter and the Druun to return. Now, as an adult, she's tracking Raya in an effort to see what use the pieces of the Gems have.

Sisu is voiced by a comedian, but she's never really as over-the-top as say, Eddie Murphy's Mushu or Robin William's Genie, two of Disney's previous and more obvious examples of this role. Which is not to say that Sisu's not funny; she has her moments. She's quick to point out that although she may be the last of the legendary dragons, she gained that status more or less by default, and wasn't even the one to create the Dragon Gem she's famous for. She explains all dragons have a magical talent, and hers is… swimming, which seems redundant for a water dragon. Raya and the Last Dragon characters in the forest (To be fair, it's not the worst: her sister could glow.)

I appreciate Sisu's character design. Some reacting to the trailers seemed to think it was a bit too cartoony and, well, cute, compared to most of the other characters, and that's true. She's furry rather than scaly, and the fur's animation is technically great, but in close-up she looks more like a plush animal than a flesh-and-blood creature. The look suits her, because she really doesn't fit into this world, full of people with trust issues. The fact that she's a giant, plush, seafoam-green water dragon also makes her stand out. It works.

The movie in general has great creature design. The world of Kumandra doesn't have regular, Earth animals. I like Namaari, and the steeds of her Fang warriors: giant, horse-sized cats. The human characters are a bit more realistically-proportioned than normal for Disney, especially Raya and Namaari. Both of their one-on-one fights feel surprisingly violent for a Disney movie, partially due to their character design, but also due to how such fights are rare in Disney productions to begin with. It's helped by the two characters' emotionally-charged history.

This is the best that Disney's done since Zootopia.


Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)

For those looking for insight into the animation process – or just want to look at more pictures – 3dtotal interviews Disney's artistic leads in a piece ending with a fully-body concept of Sisu.

Your rating: None Average: 3.3 (3 votes)

Well, anyway, I pseudo-marathoned every movie from Walt Disney Animation studios (including the WWII short collections, even the one that isn't on Disney+, but not including Dinosaur, which was really not a full WDAS joint, and is more part of the list of their movies for marketing Dinosaur because there's no other reason to watch it, or The Wild, which is really not even remotely made by WDAS but is part of the list outside of America because they put "this is the 50th movie!" in the opening of Tangled and that doesn't make since there were only 49 if you don't count Dinosaur and so they just randomly threw something they had the distribution rights to in there, apparently, and, boy, this was a parenthetical phrase, wasn't it?). I decided to watch them all, then Raya as the climax, and though it had little impact on the actual review (other than making it kinda later than I would have liked), here's my Twitter thread with very little context or sense on the experience. This is basically the first time the majority of the "canon" has been so readily available (the one exception is Make Mine Music, one of the "package films" that were anthologies of shorts made on the cheap during WWII); before home video, well, was before home video, and after home video and even into pre-Disney+ streaming, they did that Disney Vault thing which I guess is going to be a Millenial-exclusive childhood experience. I'd never actually seen Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty or Frozen II before (that might get kind of funny soon).

But, anyway, I guess I'll share my rankings of the "canon" (minus the "package films", because they're hard to rank as anthologies and also, I mean, who cares?):

52. Chicken Little
51. Peter Pan
50. Sleeping Beauty
49. Pocahontas
48. Fantasia 2000
47. Brother Bear
46. The Black Cauldron
45. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
44. The Sword in the Stone
43. Ralph Breaks the Internet
42. Big Hero 6
41. Treasure Planet
40. Tarzan
39. Home on the Range
38. Tangled
37. Bambi
36. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
35. Frozen
34. Oliver & Company
33. The Princess and the Frog
32. The Aristocats
31. Cinderella
30. Moana
29. Frozen II
28. Mulan
27. Bolt
26. The Rescuers
25. Meet the Robinsons
24. The Little Mermaid
23. Raya and the Last Dragon
22. 101 Dalmations
21. Hercules
20. Pinocchio
19. The Jungle Book
18. The Fox and the Hound
17. Aladdin
16. The Great Mouse Detective
15. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
14. Alice in Wonderland
13. The Rescuers Down Under
12. Beauty and the Beast
11. Winnie the Pooh
10. Fantasia
9. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
8. Lilo & Stitch
7. Wreck-It Ralph
6. The Emperor's New Groove
5. Dumbo
4. Lady and the Tramp
3. Robin Hood
2. The Lion King
1. Zootopia

Your rating: None Average: 4 (2 votes)

I guess it's no surprise to see two foxes in the top three! From your Twitter thread:

The Rescuers Down Under is a favorite, and I like The Rescuers, but I'm still looking at all the possible movies to pick from to finally do a sequel for, and ... Disney chose that one?

But of course, mon ami! You see, Disney is a business, and:

The Rescuers wasn’t just artistically successful; it was financially successful too. On a budget of $7.5 million, it brought in almost $200 million.

“I said to Peter Schneider, ‘Why would you do a sequel to that?’ And he said, ‘Because it was the highest grossing film of the past 10 years, that’s why. That’s what we’re going to make, whether you want to do it or not.’”

As the Collider story explains, it was also an opportunity to make a whole movie with new technology, CAPS — previously featured most prominently in a closing shot of The Little Mermaid and a Tinkerbell/Mickey animation in The Magical World of Disney.

Of course, in the end it never stood a chance against Home Alone; but producers circled their wagons and came up with…Pocahontas. So there's that!

Your rating: None

Update, kind of, but Wish, the 100 year anniversary movie for Disney, featured ... I guess they were supposed to be constellations? ... anyway, sparkly yellow outlines of characters from every previous feature, with the exception of the compilation movies (with the exception to the exception there being Ichabod Crane from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad), sequels, and The Black Cauldron and both The Rescuers movies. Like, Dinosaur made it, but not Bianca and Bernard? I mean, screw a Black Cauldron, sure, but R.I.P. to the Rescue Aid Society. Which just makes my take here even more apropo, I guess. (Apparently Meet the Robinsons also got cucked, but that one feels almost appropriate, given that movie's thematic elements.)

Anyway, Wish was overhated but also kind of boring; the outlines were the best part (other than the out of nowhere diss on The Rescuers; what did those mice do?) and same thing for Strange World, except it was overhated but maybe kind of too interesting (just a lot going on in that movie).

Your rating: None Average: 4 (1 vote)

Really got to question some of those rankings. Snow White above Bolt, Brother Bear, Tarzan and The Great Mouse Detective? I assume it got a bunch of points for breaking ground.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 4 (2 votes)

Laugh, like, love. This is an amazing film. Obviously the focus is on Raya as she grows as a character, but Sisu does too. At the start she claims not to be the 'best' dragon. Yet through the movie she proves to be the 'right' dragon. Yes she's cute....unless she's pissed off. You want angry Sisu staring you down? Yeah didn't think so. She still offers a second chance even when it means her life.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)

I watched this today. There were bits I wasn't crazy about but all together it was a very good film with a great message. (But don't worry, I'm sure, like with Zootopia, people will find no issue loving the film and completely missing the message.) Two things that really stood out for me: 1) the film is gorgeous! 2) The fight scenes are amazing. It looking great is not too surprising but I don't recall Disney doing fight scenes like that before.

PS: If you want to mention Sisu's funny lines, the "If I said I lost your puppy but still had a big chunk of it" line has got to be a top contender.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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