By Lynn Venhaus
With all its sophisticated and dazzling, detailed animation, “Raya and the Last Dragon” demonstrates what computer-generated graphic images can accomplish. The next-level panoramas and sweeping vistas are stunning visuals by Disney Animation Studios.
An ancient civilization inhabits Kumandra, but warring factions have fractured the land into five desolate areas. Legend has it that one dragon lives and warrior Raya is determined to find it, hoping that unity can happen in the realm. But saving the world will take more than teamwork.
Yet, for all that technical advancement, the tone is not consistent, and the storytelling suffers because it is such a familiar Disney template: Be Yourself, Be Kind to Others, Fight for the Common Good, Strive to Live in Harmony with People Who Aren’t Like You and Appreciate Family.
Not that those aren’t lofty ideals, but with multiple directors and eight story contributors, there isn’t a singular vision pushing us into new territory.
As a champion of female empowerment stories, I liked the fierce Raya, a more evolved warrior princess in the mold of Mulan and Moana.
As Raya, Kelly Marie Tran is the right blend of confidence and concern, grieving for what once was when her benevolent father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) was alive.
Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim created a few characters strictly along for good humor: Tuk Tuk, a roly poly creature that Raya uses as a vehicle, which of course is voiced by Disney iron man Alan Tudyk; lovable lug Tong (Benedict Wong); plucky restaurateur Boun (Izaac Wang); and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a precocious baby accompanied by a trio of curious monkeys.
But the conflict with friend-turned-enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan) seems forced, although the sword fights are well-staged.
While the voice cast is strong, the hands-down star is Awkwafina as the dragon Sisu, who can shift-shape into a female. She is glib and self-deprecating, like all good sidekicks are.
My issue with Sisu is she looks like a unicorn drawn by Lisa Frank on a ‘90s lunchbox. The silvery-blue dragon with the big Keane eyes seems out of place among the realistic animated adventures.
That said, there is an emotional payoff that sums up the story neatly. However, this film is not intended for very young audience.
If seeing it in a theater, don’t miss the accompanying vivacious animated short, “Us Again,” which is another home run from the Mouse House.
Director-writer Zach Parrish has created a vibrant cityscape for this delightful dance down memory lane. In this 7-minute short, an elderly couple rekindle their zest for life and each other, reverting to their youthful selves, as they dance through a big city on one magical rainy night.
World of Dance champions Keone and Mari Madrid are the choreographers/dancers in this animated musical fantasy and Pinar Toprak has composed a lively pulsating rhythm. The joy is palpable.
“Us Again” is set for debut on Disney Plus in June.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is an animated adventure fantasy from Disney Animation Studios. It stars Awkwafina, Kelly Marie Tran, Daniel Dae Kim, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk. The run-time is 1 hour, 47 minutes, and the rating is PG for some violence, action and thematic elements. Lynn’s Grade: B. In theaters and as premier access on Disney Plus beginning March 5.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.