While definitely not possessing the same stellar track record as Pixar, Disney's animation departments have had great financial and critical success with a good portion of their animated features for the past ten years. Frozen sparked an entire generation's worth of admiration, and even Zootopia managed both impressive reviews and over a billion dollars at the box office.
So, while the movies can seem a tad crass, and lacking the emotional depth and ambiguity that made Pixar the household name they are today, it's worth paying attention to, and Raya and the Last Dragon, their latest production, does have a lot going for it, from dazzling colour to an interestingly built world.
But let's take a step back. Raya and the Last Dragon is set in the lush South East Asian-inspired world of Kumandra (which definitely isn't coincidental considering the power of the audiences in these countries), which is formed like a dragon. After a great war between the mysterious evil entity Druun and the dragons themselves, Kumandra is torn apart into separate nations. The only thing keeping the world together is the dragon jewel used by the last dragon Sisu, to seal away the Druun. But after the jewel is destroyed, the entity returns, and to free those petrified by the Druun's evil powers, a young woman named Raya, must retrieve bits of the dragon jewel hidden in each nation.
So, it's a classical hero's journey. Learning to trust other humans again after they've done so much to further hinder their own progress and of mystical beings wielding the power to both create and destroy. There's nothing particularly offensively bad here, neither is there anything standing out that makes Raya and the Last Dragon narratively interesting. Sure, the message is abundantly clear, and the overarching lessons the movie attempts to teach through its narrative is effective, particularly towards the latter half, but one could also easily call it a bit blunt in its delivery.
It does help that each character is vividly brought to life. Both Kelly Marie Tran and particularly Awkwafina lend a certain believability to their respective roles, and Benedict Wong is also incredibly funny as the weary warrior Tong. Everyone here is in good form though, and heartfelt moments, particularly in the final act, are effective primarily because the actors give the characters warmth.
In addition, Raya and the Last Dragon continues where movies like Moana, Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 left off, in that it's gorgeously animated. Sure, the dragon character design are not particularly inspired, in that they seem more like My Little Pony characters on steroids than something imposing and beautifully elegant. That aside though, the journey takes us across frozen wastelands, bustling lantern-lit river markets and sandy caverns, and each frame is detailed and incredibly well realised. I bring up Zooptopia for a reason here, as Kumandra is a world you'd want to spend more time in. It really is that gorgeous.
Any issues apart from those mentioned? Well, if you don't like movies establishing rules at breakneck speed, this will probably turn you off. It's approachable, for sure, well choreographed even, but its also run-of-the-mill in every sense of the word, borrowing ingredients from superior stories in a lot of instances. But those ingredients do end up being turned into something rather sumptuous, and something that's easily recommendable for the whole family. Raya and the Last Dragon isn't as broadly appealing as Zootopia (not a lot of animated movies are, ultimately), but it is eager to please, and does so regularly thanks to strong performances and a vividly realised world.
Sure, I'd wish we would delved deeper into its central themes, perhaps I even would've wished for a slightly longer running time (which is rare these days I know) to give some moments more room to breathe, but ultimately, it's a perfect COVID-19 remedy for an aching soul. And you might even shed a tear or two, which is all the praise a movie like this really needs.