If anything good came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that movie studios have started streaming premieres. And one quarter into 2021,with the vaccine still underway (which is totally necessary and definitely not a moneymaking scheme), it looks like they’re going to keep at it. At least Disney is, because Raya and the Last Dragon IS STREAMING ON DISNEY+ WITH PREMIER ACCESS AND I GOT TO WATCH IT AT FIVE IN THE MORNING! Let’s effing GO with this review!
In Raya and the Last Dragon, we are taken to the formerly great realm of Kumandra. There was a big plague called the coronav—I mean—the Droon, which turned people to stone. When the titular last dragon, Shisudato, used some gem thing to imprison the Droon, people went batshit crazy over it, and divided Kumandra. When the Droon is unleashed once more (because of course it would be), Raya has to find the last dragon and fix the MacGuffin.
Since the turn of the 21st Century, Disney has had a track record of making several movies that adhere to their traditional “movie musical” formula, then breaking it up with something darker, more violent, and with no singing. Raya is the latest in the latter part of the equation. The world here is effed up beyond belief. Everywhere she goes, there’s strife and discourse.
It’s also cynical, very cynical. Raya, narrating the opening exposition, straight-up says that the fighting over the gem started because of “people being people”, as if humans are born evil (instead of being influenced by lousy parents and the media). There’s a load of Top Ten Anime Betrayals, just to shape what a hopeless mess everything is.
As I said before, Raya is also quite violent. There’s martial arts, swordfighting, and more throughout the movie. But compared to Atlantis and Treasure Planet, Raya is perhaps one of the most anime Disney movies ever; probably more than Big Hero 6. There’s crazy jump-cuts, parkour, and a sword that’s also a grappling hook.
Anyway, since American cinema just HAS to be influenced by its social climate, Raya is more about racism than the coronav—I mean—the Droon. Sure, the actual source of the conflict, in the context of the movie, is greed or whatever, but that’s just what you call “subtlety”. Throughout the movie, there’s a consistent theme of “Hey maybe if we just shut up and talk to each other”, which Raya ignores, and resorts to violence instead. It’s a symbolic, hopeful message that more-or-less applies to every problem that humanity has had with itself. But of course, considering what happened last year (and the fact that constantly talking about the issue of racism is why it’s still ongoing), even Disney should know that it’s not THAT simple.
But of course, it’s a Disney movie. Even their darker animated features adhere to the usual traditions to an extent. If you have experience with their filmography, then you know how Raya will turn out, start to finish. It tries to be grimdark, but it still has the marketable mascot, along with explosive diarrhea beetles and kung-fu babies. Also, there’s still humor, even though it’s all dark and stuff.
Keeping all that in mind… I’m just gonna be frank: I LOVE THIS MOVIE. It goes completely off the rails in every way. There is personality injected into every single shot. Honestly, it’s redundant having to keep reiterating Disney’s unique attention to detail when it comes to animation. I’m just going to put that paragraph here, since I’m sick of making a separate one for it. Anyway, the movie is gorgeous yadda-yadda, it’s Disney.
Normally, I resent most of the characters in anything, but not this time (what a surprise!). Raya herself is a fierce, but still relatable, young girl who fits almost too perfectly with the current month (Disney, are you being P.C.?). She has a real arc where she’s all like, “Distrust and violence will never end bleeeeeeh”, and inevitably has to learn how life actually works (and by “life”, I mean that sentimental crap that’s in those hopelessly optimistic self-help books that aren’t The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (which you should buy because it’s really good)).
Raya finds Shisu very early on, and good thing, since Shisu is Best Girl. She has a lot of the funnier lines in the movie, and is a hopeless optimist who clashes with Raya’s mindset. The two also gain a number of really lovable allies,of wildly varying age ranges. I kinda don’t want to talk about any of them, just so you can experience them for yourself. Unfortunately, the weakest character in the movie is the mascot, Tuk Tuk. Eff that thing. Disney, just stop making these, please. You already reached the zenith of mascot with Hei-Hei from Moana; there’s no point in making any more!
Last, but definitely not least, is Nemari, with her Cammie Gilbert hairdo. Disney movies might have abandoned villains, but they haven’t abandoned antagonists. Like a lot of characters in the movie, Nemari loves her people and wants to protect them from the Droon. She’s just about as much of a badass as Raya is. But sadly, her character arc is quite predictable, if you have experience.
Final Verdict: 9.1/10
Raya and the Last Dragon is a really great movie. It has definitely and absolutely dethroned Atlantis: The Lost Empire as my favorite of the darker variations of Disney animated features. It might go over your young ‘uns heads, but since this generation is being forced to become adults overnight (thanks COVID), Raya will probably help them with that transition instead. It goes without saying that any diehard Disney fans should watch it, just for the sake of completion (and the fact that it’s a banger of a film).