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OPINION | PLATFORM DIVING: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ a nod to Avatar, Ghibli

Steal from the best by Courtney Lanning | March 5, 2021 at 1:56 a.m.
Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is a young warrior princess training to become a Guardian of the Dragon Gem when she encounters Sisu (Awkwafina), a goofy young water dragon who can assume human shape in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.

The weekend started with such promise. I got to go hiking in Eureka Springs, and Disney provided a review copy of "Raya and the Last Dragon" with plenty of time for me to watch it and hit my print deadline for the review.

Then, the unfortunate happened. "Soul" beat out "Wolfwalkers" for best animated picture at the Golden Globes. Another default win for Pixar because voters don't know how to give awards to any animation studios outside of them and Disney.

Now that's out of my system, I'll get back to "Raya and the Last Dragon," which is a fun film.

I've been waiting for this movie for more than a year now. It's the first full-length original story from Walt Disney Animation Studios since 2016's "Moana." The House of Mouse has kept busy releasing sequels like "Frozen 2" and "Ralph Wrecks the Internet." Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for "Zootopia 2."

Details of this story have been pretty closely held and I'll try not to spoil much in this review. The movie follows Raya, a young warrior who is trying to find the last dragon. Her world is filled with vicious monsters called Druun who turn people into stone. Raya is hoping the last dragon will be able to defeat them.

In present day, there's not too many people left in the land of Kumandra, but the few who are left are squabbling over pieces of a gem filled with the last dragon's magic -- magic that keeps the Druun away. Trust and unity are big themes in this film.

"Raya and the Last Dragon" borrows heavily from the big themes in "Avatar: The Last Airbender," with splintered nations at war with each other and a powerful lack of unity. There's also a big focus on elemental power (namely water) and plenty of animated martial arts action.

Even the concept of mixing animal species together seems lifted from "Avatar," which gave us creations like lion turtles and polar bear dogs. "Raya" gives us a steed named Tuk Tuk, a combination of an armadillo and a pill bug. Yes, he's plenty cute.

And the story line of racing around the world on a ship and collecting treasures to repel shadowy monsters immediately reminded me of the 1991 animated series "The Pirates of Dark Water," which has some very similar plot points.

With the Druun, "Raya" really seems to pull from the soul-stealing spectres in "His Dark Materials."

It's like great writers and artists have been saying for years, steal from the best. "Raya" does just that, though the actual plot is unique.

I found myself interested in the world of Kumandra. It's a shame I didn't get to see much of it.

Kumandra is five rival nations, each named after a piece of the dragon's body. There's Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. "Raya" might have benefited from being a limited series instead of a film.

In "Airbender," the audience was introduced to four rival nations, Water, Air, Earth and Fire. But we were given 61 episodes to explore those lands and another 52 in the sequel "Legend of Korra." So fans were truly able to dive into these worlds and understand where each character came from and how that factored into their development.

"Raya" gives audiences 114 minutes and feels rushed at times, as Raya and her companions participate in their quest for pieces of the dragon gem.

It's a film marketed mostly at a younger audience, so I understand Disney was really stretching to give us a 2-hour movie. But it left me wanting more. I hope Raya gets a Disney+ series or something.

It's notable that, once again, Disney utilizes the cliché of a main character with a single parent. We're introduced to Raya's nice enough father Chief Benja and left wondering where Raya's mother is. She's probably hanging out with Belle's mother and Ariel's mother. Maybe there's a club somewhere for missing Disney moms nobody likes to talk about. At least Simba got to start his story with two parents.

"Raya" boasts marvelous animation. The artists created a lush and colorful world with strong lighting and amazing textures on things like stone and fabric.

Most of the characters are enjoyable, too. Traveling with Raya on her journey is the dragon Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina). She's silly and likable. It just took me half the movie to really warm up to her. Her relentless optimism that the world could be a better place filled with trusting people really did come through in the end.

Then there's a hyper, young boat captain/chef named Boun who brought an energy to the movie I immediately loved. You can't forget a con-artist baby named Noi, who travels around with three monkeys and has weird ninja abilities. She and her monkeys are essentially like the penguins from the "Madagascar" series. Entertaining enough.

Strangely, it's Raya who seems to be the most lacking character, and as our main hero, that's a bit of a problem. Kelly Marie Tran did a great job voicing her, and I'm always appreciative of a story that puts a strong woman front and center. But there's just not much to her, outside of her drive to save the world.

She doesn't seem to get much character development in the film. Sure, Raya is strong and an amazing warrior, but ... what else? She doesn't suffer to the same extent as Rey Skywalker.

The strongest comparison comes from her companion Tong (voiced by Benedict Wong). He's this giant brutal warrior. And in the two minutes of his introduction, I saw more character than Raya displayed in almost two hours. The film does a great job of showing me Tong is broken-hearted. He's alone, his warriors and friends all turned to stone. We're even shown an empty crib to further drive the point home of how much Tong lost to the Druun. His character is given so much more depth in the companionship he strikes up with Noi, having lost his own child.

Tong, despite being painted as a simpleton barbarian, is a more complex character than Raya, who is played up as the main hero on a quest to get her father back.

I don't know if it was intentional, but the film's strongest moments, the scenes that left me whispering, "Oh, damn," came from Raya's rival, and semi-antagonist, Namaari (voiced by Gemma Chan).

There's a moment where she first lays eyes on Sisu, quite literally the last dragon, and all she can do is cry, moved by the fact that the mythical creature simply exists and Namaari got to see her. That stayed with me long after the film ended.

Namaari's rivalry with Raya is good. It's almost reminiscent of (wait for it) Aang and Zuko from "Airbender," though not quite as profound.

Every scene where they fight is exciting. The animators really ate their Wheaties to pull off some of these duels. And when their final showdown comes amid a massive battle with the Druun at the film's climax, it hits good. The dramatic music, the fluid animation, the fury in each character, it all swirls together in their final showdown and just leaves me nodding slowly, whispering, "Yessssss." I felt a little bit like Palpatine.

Disney's animators threw in a loving nod to Japanese anime with one scene toward the end. It's been done before, but I can't help myself. I laugh every time.

"Raya" offers some really great, potent moments, like when Raya rides Sisu through the rain. It elicited memories of Chihiro and Haku from "Spirited Away" (again, steal from the best).

The film really brings it home for its final act. There's so much at stake, with the side characters getting to be what Firefly's Zoe would call "big damn heroes." The last 20 minutes of the film are the most perfectly-baked portion of the pie, and I loved every single bite.

Without spoiling the end, I'll just say "Raya" puts its money where its mouth is on its message of "trust" it spends two hours preaching. Point well made. And once again, the film seems to borrow bits of its ending, this time from "Guardians of the Galaxy."

The attention to small details in this film was nice. "Raya" is filled with them, from characters taking their shoes off before entering special areas to placing flowers in the river to honor those lost to the Druun. I definitely want to see Disney continue to bring more inspiration to its films from underrepresented cultures and voices. That's how you get wonderful movies like "Moana."

I was left with a few questions in the end, like more details on what the dragons specifically do in this world and how they interact with the people in it. I also feel like the origin of the Druun isn't really explained in a satisfactory way. I wish I'd seen more of the world, but that final act is impossible to hate.

"Raya" is a good film with a few holes that ultimately gets by on the strength of its grand finale.

If you don't want to see this movie in theaters, you can pay extra to watch it on Disney+.

Shown here in her human form, Sisu (Awkwafina) is a divine water being of unspeakable beauty and unstoppable magic with low self-esteem — she sees herself as average at best.
Shown here in her human form, Sisu (Awkwafina) is a divine water being of unspeakable beauty and unstoppable magic with low self-esteem — she sees herself as average at best.

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