Let’s pick up the pieces.
Disney’s new animation follows Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) a young woman who is trying to put the pieces of the world back together after human greed and stupidity have caused an apocalypse. As humans could not come together for the betterment of everyone, a sacred object is broken and an ancient evil returns.
When this happened before, the dragons found a way to seal them, hence creating the sacred object. A young Raya trusts outsider Namaari (Gemma Chan) and oh snap, now it is broken. The Druun (the ancient evil) have retuned and are turning all humans to stone.
Raya is searching for the last dragon, who according to legend will reside at the end of one of the rivers. Our opening exposition and clever time cuts remove what could have been its own story. We are fast-tracked to finding Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a title.
The problem is that Sisu isn’t sure what exactly to do. So, they decide to go ahead and collect all the shards anyway and assume magic will happen. Each kingdom represents a brief stop on the journey where they add a member to the party and find a shard. It all plays like a videogame.
The story is simple. However, the strangest part about the movie is how many other movies they could have gotten out of this one. Simply finding the dragon could have been its own tale. Further, we tend to go through these fallen kingdoms at breakneck speed, which leaves little room for expanded storytelling.
The writing is fine on our core cast. Raya proves a likable albeit predictable hero, and Sisu is brought to life by Awkwafina. The settings are likewise nice. This is our first real foray into Southeast Asia via Disney, so that’s a major plus. However, we have a nondescript mashing of cultures, which makes the breakneck speed feel more like a brief visit than an extended stay.
With Disney being so willing to expand stories over multiple films it feels a little lazy to cram everything into one story here. I guess they were worried about sales? I’m not sure what their thinking was, but more time with these characters would have been nice.
The animation is excellent. I’m particularly impressed with the landscapes that are given a distinct feel in each region. There is a beauty in the backgrounds that truly shows how far animation has come. I’ve given Disney executives a lot of crap on this blog for business practices. It is important to remember that they have immensely talented people working for them. These animators are at the top of their game.
We have nice bits of action, humor, and character building that come in predictable waves. Yes, the movie is predictable (it’s a Disney film through and through), but everything clicks to be an enjoyable story that proves enough adventure for everyone.
My biggest gripe is the design of the dragons. In Disney, only two animals exist: dogs and cats. Every other animal is forced through the lens of one of these creatures (usually dogs), and yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but often the creatures take a dog-like appearance. This works great here with Raya’s pet snail thing… not sure what it is. However, it makes the dragons look weird. We have dog like Asian dragons that end up looking like My Little Pony instead of some mythical beast. You won’t notice this until later in the narrative where we see more dragons via a flashback. It was jarring to see them presented this way.
I liked this movie more than I thought I would. I just can’t get over the idea that they crammed three movies into one though. Surprisingly, it works well. Most other stories trying to do the same thing get jumbled, this one just feels quick.
Worth a watch.