Raya and the Last Dragon ****
One Liner Review:
Another gem from Disney animation, this movie tackles the barren wasteland idea and the mythological dragon idea as legends that haven’t been done this well since Moana.
Disney has done it again, and this one is one of the better movies by the studio in years. Raya and the Last Dragon combines apocalyptic wandering with a Lord of the Rings-like quest and adventure. The story is actually fairly simple, requiring Raya to go to each of four lands and try to get s broken piece of dragon crystal from each one. But getting these pieces is not an easy task, and also the way this story is told makes it feel pretty complex and thrilling. For example, the whole first act is told by jumping around in time, to present a legend, then a flashback five hundred years later, and then finally the present day story. And this structure makes the story feel more epic and consequential. Each city is beautiful and creatively designed in a unique way that sets it apart from the others, and the way a new character joins the group with each place they go, is more fun than it is gimmicky. The only real negative are the villains, which amount to little more than purple smoke. But there’s a villain in human form as well, as Raya’s arch enemy Namari has a rivalry and twisted relationship with the character that follows them from when they were children all the way to the end of the film. This one is pretty great.
Raya and the Last Dragon is another fantastic Disney success story. Whether it’s traditional Walt Disney Studios or Pixar making these movies, the results keep coming in as hit after hit, smart success after smart success. In the past year, we had Onward, Soul, and now Raya and the Last Dragon. All three of these movies were pretty great. Onward tackled fantasy creatures in a way that was almost cartoonish with it’s characters, and yet went pretty deep with its story. Soul went the complete opposite route. As far as characters go, it was the most realistic of all Disney movies, giving us the story of a high school music teacher-jazz musician who was having trouble in life. But boy did that movie get creative with taking its main character into the afterlife. And Raya and the Last Dragon again does something totally different. This one is closer to Moana than anything else, which is to say that it’s about a human character living in a world where there are creatures of legend and mythical beasts. This captures the spirit of Mulan (female warrior in a time of war,) and combined it with creatures of legend in an apocalyptic world. The results are pretty great.
The movie opens with the barren wasteland image and a girl riding on some kind of giant wheel, as it rolls and spins through the desert. Her voice over tells us about the story of the land and how at one time all kingdoms were united as a peaceful place called Kumajra. Then one day, a faceless group of creatures called the Drune, (basically purple smoke monsters,) took over, turning everyone to stone. The dragons fought back, and they were all turned to stone as well, except for one….Sisu (voiced by Akwafina.) Sisu used here dragon powers to make a magic crystal and used it to defeat the Drune and turn everyone back who had become stone. But the other dragons never turned back. Sisu saved the world, she wa unable to save her brothers and sisters.
As the story goes, Sisu fell asleep somewhere at the end of one of the rivers. Nobody knows which river, or whether the story of what happened to Sisu is even true at all. And the rest was history. People went on living their lives as if the Drune attack had never happened at all. There were no more dragons, but otherwise things were pretty much the same. But things had also changed. Instead of Kumadra, (not just a place, but also a state of being and harmony,) people became jealous of each other, and everyone wanted Sisu’s magic dragon crystal. This story is told in voice over, and is presented to us with traditional 2D animation to show the images (as opposed to the 3D computer graphic animation of most of the movie.) That’a a technique that other movies like Moana and Kung Fu Panda have used in the past, to introduce the legend in a different way than the rest of the movie will look, and it definitely works.
But Raya’s voice over doesn’t just tell about this battle between dragons and the Drune. It also ends with something quite interesting and unexpected. Raya tells us that this was not when the world broke. That didn’t happen until Raya came along, five hundred years later. At this point, we might be a little confused. What is she talking about? Especially since we now see her in an area that looks deserted, as she breaks into a secret temple. In other words, it looks like we are back where the movie started, with her all alone in an empty wasteland. Turns out we’re not. The world is populated, at this point, and Raya is breaking into one of her father’s temples to see if she can steal an artifact from him, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style. It makes for an exciting opening, as she first gets through a series of traps, with the help of her pet, Tuk Tuk (a chipmunk with a shell on its back.) Then she has a sword fight with her father on a series of stones in the water, and this transpires before we know that the man she is fighting is actually her father, and is also the ruler of their land.
Raya and her father live in Heart. It is one of the five kingdoms that the land split into after the fight agains the Drune, when all five kingdoms wanted to claim the dragon crystal for themselves. It is Heart that was able to take hold of the dragon crystal. This is the artifact that Raya is trying to get at the beginning, and that the people of Heart consider themselves the protector of. The other lands are similarly named after parts of the dragon (and the map of all of the lands even features a large river that looks like a dragon.) There’s Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang. Raya’s father invites all four of these other kingdoms to Heart for a celebration, and to let them know that he wants them all to unite as they did once before, and join together as one peaceful kingdom. During this festival, Raya makes friends with a girl from the city of Fang. The girl is Namari, and she gives Raya her dragon necklace as a gift. Raya repays Namari by taking her to see the dragon crystal. Big mistake. Numari attacks. Then warriors from other cities attack. The crystal breaks into five pieces, and each kingdom takes one of them. But worse of all, when the crystal breaks, the Drune come back. And they turn nearly everyone, including Raya’s father, to stone. This is what Raya meant when she said the world didn’t break until five hundred years later, with her. The world broke because Raya trusted Namari, showed her where they kept the crystal, and got betrayed to the point where the Drune were able to attack again.
And now we are back to where the film began, several years after those events from Raya’s childhood, where the crystal broke apart. As she rides on the back of what we now learn is Tuk Tuk (who has grown much much bigger since the start of the film,) we see her zoom past a number of people who have been turned to stone. Raya comes upon a river and pours some water over the dragon necklace that Namari gave her as a gift when they were kids. Then Raya says something of a prayer and the river starts to bubble up. Bubbles float into the air and then there’s a fog. The next thing you know, Sisu appears as a blue dragon with loads of personality. She touches the crystal, that Raya has with her, and Sisu gains the power to glow. Sisu explains that this power belonged to one of her sisters, and that each dragon had his or her own power or ability. Sisu’s ability was swimming, and she could swim faster than a motorboat. Raya explains to Sisu everything that has happened since Sisu fell asleep at the end of the river (which apparently happened when everyone turned back from stone, after Sisu used the crystal to stop the Drune.) Her waking up and coming back into the world is not unlike the Genie being awoken in Aladdin, also having no idea what day and year it is.
And now Raya and Sisu go together to each of the four other lands. In fact, this is the journey of the movie. Going to each land, and trying to get the crystal that is bring held by the leader. This is also where the movie really starts to get good. The Drune themselves aren’t anything special in terms of creative design. In fact, they’re probably the weakest part of the movie, with their purple smoke. The climax with Drune surrounding the characters as they stand next to each other and support each other is just like the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. Especially with that purple smog a and smoke all around. But the journey to get from point A to point B (basically to collect all of the pieces of crystal,) is where this movie really excels.
A large part of the reason for that is because each land they go to is completely different, and in each land they are also met with some very different characters. In the first land, Tail, everyone is dead. When the find the ruler, she is literally just skeletal remains. Again, very Raiders of the Lost Arc-like. Raya and Sisu easily claim the crystal (if you consider avoiding some deadly traps to be easy,) and then they hitch a ride on a boat that is being sailed by a boy. In the next city, Talon, we come to a beautiful city of lights all built on the water, like Venice. At this point the characters part ways, each one is faced with a new challenge, including a Con Baby and a Drune attack. The Con Baby and her trio of accomplices (are they monkeys?) now join the group. So it’s the boy from Tail, the Con Baby from Talon, and when thru get to Spine, they meet a strong guy warrior who also fights them at first, before he comes on board.
At this point, we’ve got a whole crew of characters, each from a different land. It works because it’s no so obvious. The boy with the boat, for example, was barely from the land (they met him while leaving the area,) and since he causes no conflict for them the way the Con Baby and the Warrior from Spine do, it helps divert us from noticing the pattern. It also makes the pattern that much cooler when we do figure it out later… like “oh, so that’s what that boy with the boat was. He was the first character from another land to join their team.” The group is even referred to by the warrior as a Fellowship, (a perfect reference to the Lord of the Rings, and a mixed group of characters including dwarves, elves, and hobbits working together.)
As if the different characters from different cities banding together and mission to collect all crystal pieces weren’t enough, this movie also has a nice character arc for its main character. It deals with trust, and it is actually established in every city they go to, where Sisu wants to bring a present to the ruler, abs Raya is more about taking what they came for with deception or force. All of this works. The only problem is a final betrayal by one character that makes total sense as far as why the character wound to it, but as far as Disney and teaching the lesson about trust, makes no sense at all. There’s definitely some confusing moments towards the end, including a character claiming that something that happened is “both of their faults,” when clearly it wasn’t at all. But the way the trust issue is established from the very beginning of the film, with Raya bringing Namari to see the crystal, is great. The way it is carried on by Sisu in each city they visit is also pretty cool. And the way that a real arch enemy rivalry between Raya and Namari is not only established early, but also weaves in throughout the movie is also pretty fantastic. We even get to see things from Namari’s point of view, from time to time, watching conversations between she and her mother in Fang. This movie has so much going for it. It’s colorful and beautiful in all the right ways, but it also really tells a fantastical story of creatures, legends, power, and trust. What a great film.