The Other Side of Animation 212: Raya and the Last Dragon Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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! 

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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. 

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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. 

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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 WomanThe FugitiveWaterworldThe Sixth SenseDinosaurAtlantis: 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.  

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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. 

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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

The Other Side of Animation 200: Soul Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

HEADS UP: I was able to watch this film thanks to Disney via a screener. Enjoy the review!

It all started back in September 2015. I wrote my first review of Ernest & Celestine, one of my favorite films of all time, and one of my all-time favorite animated films period. I made it a goal to cover everything out there that wasn’t Disney and Pixar. I chose to exclude those two because I wouldn’t have that much else to add to the discourse. I usually love their animated features, but I tend to dislike the ones that are the obvious bad eggs of the bunch. My goal was to talk about animated films that were under the radar or talk about the other big animated films. Well, it’s been five years, and why not break some rules? From now on, I’ll drop a review of an animated film from Disney and/or Pixar from time to time on my site. Why? Because as much as I love showing off animated films from around the world, from other companies, and introducing you all to these amazing wonders that are made by hand or by computer, sometimes, I want to indulge in what everyone else is seeing. So, how about we make this 200th review the newest Pixar film, Soul

Directed by Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers, and written by Doctor, Powers, and Mike Jones, this is Pixar’s newest animated feature and the first feature film from the company to have a black co-director and a predominantly black cast. It was originally scheduled to be released back in June 2020, but due to the pandemic, it was delayed and then controversially given a Disney+ release. Luckily, unlike Mulan 2020, it didn’t cost extra. So, was there any real worry about this film hitting the streaming service? Nope! Let’s dive in! 

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Soul follows our main character Joe Gardner, voiced by Jamie Foxx. Joe is a music teacher who dreams of being a famous jazz pianist and playing with one of the big players in the music world. One day, he auditions with one of the biggest jazz musicians around, Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett. After he succeeds in the audition, he exudes his happiness across the city until he falls into an open manhole. Through some obvious denial of dying or being close to death, Joe ends up in a realm where souls are made and get their personalities. He encounters a soul named 22, voiced by Tina Fey, who has been there for who knows how long, and doesn’t want to leave and go to earth. Joe then makes a deal with 22 that if he can find her spark, she will give Joe her patch to let him come back to life. Can Joe fulfill this fairly heady and philosophical task? Will he be able to fulfill his love for jazz? Or will Joe and 22 find something new that gives their life that spark? 

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So, from every review you may have read about this film, this is Pixar’s most mature film. It’s not mature in the sense that people swear and there is a lot of violence. That would honestly be interesting to see what Pixar could do with an actual PG-13 or R-rated film. Anyway, this is mature in the sense that the film is exceptionally heady. I mean, when you are a film about life, love, death, finding your spark, and very ethereal concepts about, well, the human experience and soul, it’s going to be not the most child-friendly tone. However, while it might not outwardly be the most approachable film for super young kids, I think everyone needs to see Soul. It’s a story that juggles a lot of these concepts, and finds incredible ways to execute the ideas given to the audience. What does “before-life” look like? Are you born with that spark? What happens when you find that spark? Is it the same goal or passion you started with? What makes you, well, you? What happens when you become too stressed out or too worn out by finding your passion? What does your soul look like when this happens? It’s a film that wants to tackle some heavy topics, and I admire the heck out of that. So many animation “fans” ask and “demand” animated films to be “taken seriously”. Well, this is the film you want then. I mean, in my opinion, animated films made in the US can be any genre, but that’s beside the point. 

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This would all be for naught if the characters didn’t work, and boy howdy do I love the cast. I think while this film can be approachable by all, it’s focused on a somewhat older audience. I think it’s amusing that we have a main character who is middle-aged. I know some people think animated films that want to be seen by kids and families should have child-like protagonists, but I disagree. You can tell stories with characters of all ages. I like that we have a middle-aged hero. It feels different. The characters have great chemistry, and I loved seeing Joe and 22 together as 22 slowly finds that spark. The film is full of multiple memorable characters, from the spirit counselors to the side characters. Even characters you see in only one scene leave an impression. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film is when Joe and 22 go to the barbershop and we meet Dez, who is voiced by Donnell Rawlings. Not only does it do a good job of adding to the overall black experience and culture, but it’s also one of the most thematically important scenes in the film. The spirit counselors are also a lot of fun to watch, and have some of the best lines in the movie. I admire that there is no real bad guy. I adore animated films that do the “there is no real bad guy, but everyone is flawed” thing. 

*small spoiler talk here*

With all that said, I know one scene may rub some people the wrong way, where 22 ends up in Joe’s body while Joe ends up in the body of a cat. I think if this was handled by any other studio, it would have looked really bad for understandable reasons. What does save this scene, and I think Kemp and Pete handle this well with making souls non-binary with no real gender, race, or sex identification. I think this is the first Pixar film to have non-binary characters. Plus, this point of the film is for Joe to see life and passion from a different perspective. However, if you agree or disagree with me on this point, that’s perfectly fine, and I get if some people may or may not get rubbed the wrong way from it.

*Small spoiler talk ends here* 

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Speaking of the cast, the voice cast is pretty great. An element that I love about Pixar and Disney animated film casting is that they don’t rely on the hype of the big names they get. They do rely on big names, but it’s never the selling point, unlike some films that make it priority number one like Rango having Johnny Depp. The cast including Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi, Fortune Femster, Enobia Shroff, Donnell Rawlings, June Squibb, Ester Chae, and other big names like Cody Chestnutt making small cameos, brings so much life to the story, and I admire how predominantly black this cast is. The dialogue is complex, funny, heartfelt, and real. No one is relying on hip modern lingo, or is trying too hard to stand out. 

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I’m a little shocked it’s taken this long in the review to talk about the stellar animation. It’s incredible. From the textures, the lighting, and the hair physics, the characters look incredible. I like that the design work for humans is at a point where we can make consistently good-looking humans with CGI animation. All it takes is a little elbow grease and the right art style. I love the designs for the spirit counselors, and I’m curious as to how challenging they were to tackle, due to them being essentially flat abstract lines. The worlds that they create are fully realized, and show some of the best animation and sequences out of any Pixar film. The music that is composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is full of whimsical delights, and ethereal tracks that make you feel otherworldly. Even Cody Chestnutt has a song in the film that melts my heart with love each time I listen to it. The more jazz and soul music used in the film was by Jon Batiste, and man, I adored the music from top to bottom. It’s easily one of my favorite Disney soundtracks. 

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I don’t know what else I could say. Soul is one of Disney and Pixar’s best films. I would argue it’s one of the most ambitious animated films of all time. Will I be shocked or hate anyone who doesn’t love the film? Of course not! However, if you want to join the discussion about it, I recommend watching this film and coming up with your own opinions and observations. Who knows, maybe you will find something that I didn’t notice for the first time. If this doesn’t convince you to support this film and watch it, then I don’t know what will. Well, I’m glad I decided to make this my first Pixar and Disney film to review. Now then, it’s time to go back to what I specialize in and also love talking about, foreign animation. Next time, we will be talking about Lupin III: The First

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: Criterion/Essentials!