Monday, March 8, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon - Movie Review

The Movie: Raya and the Last Dragon

The Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
The Co-Directors: Paul Briggs and John Ripa

The Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Thalia Tran, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison and Ross Butler

The Story: In a realm known as Kumandra, a re-imagined Earth inhabited by an ancient civilization, a warrior named Raya is determined to find the last dragon.

The Review:
From the moment this movie was announced, I know I was going to love it and all the way up through sitting down to watch it, the anticipation only grew stronger even as I tried not to get too excited. I could tell from the trailer that this was going to be a fun, heroic story with beautifully lush and textured animation what would all highlight the southeast Asian history and folklore it was striving to represent. Speaking of representation, this movie features Disney's first ever southeast Asian princess and the cast brought into fill all of the voice roles is just as rich and representative of the story being told. I am so happy to see Kelly Marie Tran step back onto the global stage after pulling back from all of the toxic Star Wars fandom that was just unnecessarily brutal for no other reason than she is an Asian woman.

This movie, created by a team of directors led by Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), puts an Asian woman at the forefront as a strong, smart, and physically gifted human being. Of course, she is not perfect, she has a lot to learn about people and about life and that's kind of the point of the story although the point I'm making is that Raya is one of the most unique characters Disney has ever added to their roster. I know people are going to compare her to Mulan and Moana just because they're Asian, but I think she is more in line with Merida in who she is and where she is at in her life. Both are stubborn, strong willed women who realize too late just how much they have to learn and the mistakes they make send them on a journey of redemption and on a path to reunite their people.

Kelly Marie Tran does a great job voicing the hero and some of her best moments are alongside Awkwafina who provides the  voice for a legendary dragon named Sisu who can shape shift into a young woman who looks kind of like Awkwafina with super colorful hair. I was very impressed with Awkwafina's performance in this story as she puts a lot of effort into a character that provides a lot more than just comic relief and there's a clear influence from Robin Williams' take on the genie in Aladdin. She is essential to the overall story and is a catalyst for Raya and the journey she finds herself on. Other notable vocal performances include Gemma Chan as Raya's nemesis Namaari, Daniel Dae Kim as Raya's father, Benedict Wing as mighty warrior Tong, and Sandra Oh as Namaari's mother Virana. Seriously though, if you wanted to put together a trio of badass leading ladies into one movie, you really can't go wrong with Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, and Gemma Chan.

Before we get too carried away with the story aspect of this movie, I want to make a point to say that the overall idea of the movie and the journey that Raya takes is not anything original by any means and follows a lot of familiar territory and I also want to say that all of that is perfectly okay. What Disney is doing with this movie is giving a face to young Asian women and girls, some of whom, have never seen their own selves or their culture represented in this type of fashion before. Southeast Asian culture, which includes countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines each of which has its own history and culture and folklore. These are all also very different from China or Japan or the types of Pacific Island cultures represented in Moana so Raya really is a new and unique type of story in that regard.

One thing I will absolutely die on a hill for with this movie is the quality of animation which is unmatched by anything Disney or Pixar has ever done before. There I said it and you will not be able to convince me otherwise. Every detail of every scene is gorgeously rendered and no detail has been left out whether it is the fabric of a cape, the engraving on a sword, or a lush and textured environment that the characters interact with. Every single second of this movie is worth the price of admission and you get an awful lot of seconds worth of movie to look at. I also like that the animation has a very distinct style to it. None of it looks like anything we've seen before, it doesn't look too cartoony, and it's also photorealistic by any means. The creators found just the right lane to sit in and they absolutely nailed it.

I don't often talk about the music for a movie but composer James Newton Howard did a fantastic job putting this score together and the entire soundtrack adds so much to the quality of the movie. The score is filled with the sounds and instruments and voices of the southeast Asian cultures this movie represents and just listening to the prologue (you can find it on youtube) gives you a taste of just about everything the soundtrack has to offer. I do not have intimate knowledge of the instruments and such but I have read up on it a bit and it's pretty impressive how much effort was put into creating an authentic soundscape for the movie just as they did with every other aspect of the film.

The level of representation in what this movie is and how it was created is quite the achievement from a company that is typically known for doing everything they can to simply maximize profits. I doubt if it will be the most successful movie Disney has ever made from a financial standpoint but the impact it is going to have on young women who are seeing themselves for the first time authentically represented as a Disney princess and a hero they can look up to. I think that's where this movie will easily find success and that's what really matters. Oh and one last thing I have to mention is how food is a very important ingredient to the story and I love how it is yet another way to emphasize southeast Asian culture by mixing in some truly authentic flavors.

The Verdict:
Raya and the Last Dragon is a more than worthy entry into the pages of Disney animated storytelling and Kelly Marie Tran is a perfect addition to Disney's roster of famous princesses. It is an impressive achievement in animation and it is a strong step forward for representation in mainstream cinema.

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