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It’s easy to forget, but Disney was not always this giant monster of a company that it is today. I mean, it was, but it wasn’t this big of a behemoth. Back when Walt Disney died, they hit a real dark spot, and while they clawed their way out of that dark spot during the late 80s and throughout the 90s, they then fell into another real dark spot in the 2000s. They hit a bad streak and probably one that was much more damaging during the early 2000s than the original Disney Dark Age, because of bad business practices. Almost every single animated film they put out during that period underperformed or downright bombed. When they felt like they needed to chase the trend of other studios coming to power like DreamWorks and Pixar, they fell apart. They lost who they were as filmmakers, and they let down the multiple talented artists that worked for them. While they still have problems with owning a bit too much of everything, it would be a lie to say they are artistically worse than they were back then. Sure, their live-action remakes are not all great, but their animation game has stepped up, and while you can argue about the quality of some of them like Frozen II and Ralph Breaks the Internet (they aren’t my favorites of the last decade, but if you think these were the worst, then you haven’t seen enough animated movies from outside the big film sphere), they have had more hits than misses, and that’s healthy for a company as problematically big as Disney. I won’t be supportive of some of their business elements, or the fact they shut down studios, and bury their non-inhouse-made films, but when they make a film I like, I am going to be supportive of it. For example, let’s talk about their recent film, Raya and the Last Dragon.
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada and Don Hall, produced by Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho, and written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, this is the newest animated feature from the giant studio that was supposed to have come out last year, but the pandemic screwed over that release, and was recently released on March 5th via a theatrical/Disney+ premier access release strategy. This is Disney’s 59th animated feature. So, what do I think about it? I think you will need to read the review to find out!
Our story revolves around Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran. She lives in the land of Kumandra, a land that was once prosperous but is now a barren wasteland due to a corporeal force known as the Druun. The Druun were taken care of due to the sacrifice made by the dragons. Kumandra was then separated into a set of kingdoms with their own ways of living and ideals. When Raya was young, her father attempted to bring the different kingdoms together, but that plan failed when the gem that was keeping the Druun sealed away broke, and essentially all of human civilization was screwed over. Years later, as an adult, Raya sets out to find the dragon that saved the humans back in the day. The good news is that she does find the dragon named Sisu, voiced by Awkwafhina. The bad news is that Sisu wasn’t technically the dragon that saved humanity. It is up to Raya and Sisu to reclaim the broken gemstones and reform the orb to destroy the Druun and bring everyone together.
So, this is Disney’s first original animated feature (not counting Pixar) since 2016’s Zootopia and Moana. It is kind of insane that it’s been that long. Luckily, their original animated features are still pretty strong. The main themes that are approached in this film are dealing with grief, loss, and trust. Throughout the entire runtime, you see many of the characters approach these themes in varying ways. Raya is not trusting of anyone, while her father was overly hopeful when she was younger. Even when Raya is searching for the last dragon, she was about to pull her sword out when she thought she saw some bandits that turned out to be people who turned to stone due to the Druun. It’s an interesting dynamic to see Raya bounce off of Sisu, Raya bounce off of Namaari, Raya bounce off of Noi and Buon, and you get the idea. You even see the darker sides of trust not only through Raya but characters like the Tail Chief. Seeing them deal with grief and loss is also eye-opening with how each of the main characters handles who they lost due to the Druun. A lot of the payoff with these themes and arcs feel very satisfying and that’s due to strong characters. Raya is a fantastic lead and Kelly Marie Tran pulls off her first major lead performance in a film. Awkwafhina as Sisu is divisive, but I don’t find her as annoying as previous comedic main characters, and if you know Disney’s other 58 feature films, there are much worse ones than Sisu. I love how Sisu is built up to be the key to solving the problems of the Druun, but she isn’t. She’s a piece of the puzzle, but not the end all be all. It’s up to the human characters to take what Sisu is requesting and do it on their own. Sisu also encapsulates these themes with her guilt and dealing with the loss of her dragon kind. While characters like Buon, voiced by Izaac Wang, and Noi, voiced by Thalia Tran are great twists on the kid characters, I think my favorite side character is Tong, voiced by Benedict Wong. He has some of my favorite story beats and is a delightful twist on the giant buff guy warrior. A lot of his moments show off great character animation and there is more storytelling within the film if you watch the animation unfold.
Speaking of animation, I think Disney has hit the next level in their animation game. While I think they have always had good CGI animation (outside of Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, but they were starting late at that point), they hit a point where some of the weak elements were revealing themselves. Now they have upped their texture work, their human designs look the best since Tangled, and their body types have improved as well. Everyone has distinct movements, the action is stellar, and it shows why Disney has some of the most top-tier animation talents in the world. Seriously, when was the last time you saw some great action in a Disney film? The hand-to-hand combat has weight and is choreographed with excellent precision. The music by James Newton Howard, the same composer behind Pretty Woman, The Fugitive, Waterworld, The Sixth Sense, Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet, is grand. I adore the epic scale and the intimate tunes found within the film. I dig that they also collaborated with Filipina singer KZ Tandingan, and she sounds fantastic. The voice cast is also pretty stellar. What I usually like about Disney animation casting is that they chose actors that fit the role. They don’t just go by who’s the biggest names they can get, which is something that has plagued animated features since everyone took the wrong lesson from Robin Williams in Aladdin, resulting in films hirings big names simply for the sake of big names. The cast including Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Izaac Wang, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandrah Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, and Alan Tudyk all are pretty good in their roles. I dug their overall performances with the script, and while I didn’t laugh at every joke that they threw at me, I still had a few chuckles that made me laugh.
I don’t have any major complaints. Like, sure, some of the dialogue is a touch modern, but I’ve seen films that are in classical fantastical settings do worse. Namaari could have had a bit more time for her to be fleshed out, but I still love her dynamic with Raya and the small beats with her mother. I think in the end, whatever I could criticize, there is something to counterbalance it. I could go into what they did right or wrong with the Southeast Asian culture and their combining of multiple elements, but that’s not my place or my knowledge, and I don’t want to armchair diagnose any of the cultural elements.
All I can do is judge this film as a film, and, well, I loved it. It’s so refreshing to see an original film from Disney Animation that isn’t a sequel, and while I am bummed it’s underperforming, I don’t blame any film underperforming since we are still in a pandemic. If you feel like it’s safe to go to a theater, then go check it out that way, otherwise, you should either wait for it to be free on Disney+ or bite the bullet and spend the Premier Access price for it. At least it’s one time and it’s tied to your account. Either way, Raya is one of my favorite films of the year so far, and I can’t wait to see where it ebbs and flows on my Best to Worst list of 2021. Now then, let’s dive into some foreign animation goodness with The Bear’s Famous Invasion of Sicily!
Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!
Rating: Essential Viewing