Raya And The Last Dragon (2021) Review

Raya And The Last Dragon Review

Opening with an enigmatic introduction that plays out like Disney’s TOMB RAIDER, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON introduces us to our latest animated icon: Raya, daughter of the Chief of the Heart Tribe, one of the five nations which exist in the once-unified land of Kamundra. 500 years previously, humans and dragons lived together in harmony but when the world was invaded by the monstrous Druun, creatures who can drain the life force from living things and turn them to stone, only a tremendous sacrifice by the last dragons, summoning up all their magic, saved the day. Half a millennia later, all that remains of that momentous sacrifice is the orb of Sisu. But when a tribal conflict erupts and the orb is shattered into five pieces, the Druun reappear and it seems like there is no hope for Kumandra.

There’s a lot of mythology and world-building to be done in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON and despite some heavy expository scenes – or maybe because of them – it feels like we’re rushed through the introduction to the breathtakingly beautiful southeast Asia-infused land of Kamundra, its people and its history. It looks and sounds incredible but there’s barely any time to take it all in before we’re thrust into the story proper. At 107 minutes, it may be at the longer end of animated fare but there’s a case to be made that this is one movie that needed to be that little bit longer.

Once the action really kicks in, it settles into a familiar and slightly formulaic narrative quest structure where Raya travels the land, seeking to reassemble the orb and, along the way, picking up a ragtag band of followers to help her in her quest, along with her loyal and adorable – and eminently merchandisable – sidekick Tuk Tuk but you’ll have to make the effort to invest in the quest yourself because the film is in too much of a hurry to draw you in organically.

Perhaps in too many ways, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON seeks to play it safe when it should and could be taking more chances, although the decision to avoid musical numbers completely is probably a wise one. The animation is immaculate and the setting offers an abundance of storytelling potential but nothing really gets a chance to breathe in the service of driving the story forward at breakneck speed. The overenthusiastic pacing undercuts some of the film’s emotional beats and undoes a lot of the great voice work done by Kelly Marie Tran, Akwafina, Gemma Chan and Izaac Wang. There’s a mythology here rich enough to have been fashioned into something akin to AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER with a bit more patience and ambition but instead it’s wasted in service of a superficial and super-straightforward quest.

Of course, it’s still a fun and pleasantly polished watch and there’s enough cuteness and comedy to keep the young ones entertained but there’s always a nagging feeling that with a little more edge, RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON could have really sunk its claws into the audience. Perhaps the inevitable spin-off Disney+ series will give the chance for this amazing world to spread its wings and take flight.

score 7