REVIEW: Raya and the Last Dragon

I’d like to say I’m a credible, respected journalist, whose reviews send cold chills down the spines of anyone involved in the movie industry. I’d like to say that.

Alas, I’m just some bloke, who struggles to grow any means of facial hair, with a blog. And if you want a five-star review, you could sit me down in front of an exceptional movie, or you could bribe me. Disney did both.

(Seriously. Look how pretty all of these goodies are. We’ll just brush over my lockdown curtains though, eh?)

Ahead of my chat with stars Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina, I was fortunate enough to watch Disney’s latest animated classic, Raya and the Last Dragon. And when I say I was “fortunate”, that is a huge understatement. Raya and the Last Dragon is one of my favourite Disney movies, full stop. And this is coming from the bloke who is still humming Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog.

Raya and the Last Dragon follows, you guessed it, Raya as she attempts to find the – can you guess where I’m going with this? – last dragon, Sisu, in order to stop these sinister monsters known as Druun from destroying humanity.

Disney know what they’re doing; introduce an audience to a princess, have her overcome an issue, and have her fall in love and live happily ever after. Rumour has it that if you look up ‘fairytale ending’ in a dictionary, you’ll see Walt Disney laying on a pile of money, with two thumbs up. Disney do it so well, so why would they change that magical formula?

And yet Raya and the Last Dragon just feels so different, for all of the right reasons. In the past, Disney have presented us with some iconic, powerful female characters, including Mulan, Merida and Elsa, but all of these have one thing in common; they either spent the movie training to become bad-ass, or were encouraged to hide their strengths. The titular Raya, however, literally opens the movie in a blaze of action. There’s no harnessing her skills, or anyone telling her she shouldn’t be a warrior – she just, well, is.

In fact, from its elaborate action opening sequence, it’s apparent that Raya and and the Last Dragon is more mature than other Disney films. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s comparable to the Ocean’s franchise. And, no, not because Don Cheadle does some of the worst acting in this, but because it’s so slick. There are these gorgeous heist-set ups, involving several different styles of animation, all transitioning using quick-moving panels. I can imagine Steven Soderbergh watching these moments on a pile of cash with two thumbs up. (Seriously, these movie people are rich.)

Even the Druun are quite sinister, and somewhat unlike anything I’ve seen in a Disney movie yet. These black/purple swirling balls of sludge and gas wouldn’t seem out of place as a villain in Stranger Things given their texture and the daunting sound effects that come from them. Without spoiling the film, because I think you’d be doing yourself an injustice if you didn’t watch it, the final act feels VERY Stranger Things, and I almost see these moments as a gentle nod to the knowing adult audience, whilst the adventure happening on screen is still exhilarating for the younger children watching.

Of course, this film would be nothing without it’s perfect cast. Kelly Marie Tran has been under-utilised in every film she’s been in since The Last Jedi, and if Raya and the Last Dragon isn’t evidence of that, I don’t know what is. She sounds so perfect for the role; she is warm and energetic and charismatic, and everything you want in a leading character. She gels so well with her sidekick, Sisu (played by one of my favourite people EVER, Awkwafina.) Firstly, I just want to thank Disney for doing a ‘buddy-comedy’ featuring two female characters; it’s long overdue.

Initially, after watching several trailers, I wasn’t sold on Awkwafina as the joke-cracking dragon, Sisu. She just didn’t sound right. Don’t judge me – I hated myself for thinking that. In my eyes, Awkwafina could do no wrong. I sobbed for hours on end. After all, it was all to easy to compare Awkwafina’s Sisu, a flamboyant, comedic relief in the form of a dragon, whose partner is an Asian female warrior, to Eddie Murphy’s Mushu, a flamboyant, comedic relief in the form of a dragon, whose partner is an Asian female warrior…

And then I watched the whole film, and I instantly took back everything I ever thought about Awkwafina’s portrayal of Sisu. My god, is she good. I’d go as far as saying she’s my favourite character in the film; she has a touch of the silly irreverence about her, without becoming tiring, and enough heart to stop her from becoming a two-dimensional character. Even some of her gags would fit perfectly in – I don’t know – The Hangover.

While I’ve spent the last however-many-minutes raving about this film, it isn’t perfect. What film is? Road House, that’s what. I could moan about how the middle act seemed quite repetitive, as we follow Raya and Sisu to three different locations, only for them to find a piece of a gem here, recruit another member to their party, and then move on to another location to do it again. But… I’ll let it slide. Each location feels totally different; even down to the inhabitants who live there, and this is vital for the ultimate moral in the final act.

What can I say? It is, easily, one of my favourite Disney movies ever; and I’ve seen them all. Don’t test me on it. I’m that sad. It’s gorgeous to watch; so funny; and really moving. Plus, if the magic and whimsy isn’t your cup of tea, then there’s a kung-fu fighting baby. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?!

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