“Raya and the Last Dragon” sports gorgeous animation in substitute of Disney’s best storytelling

Disney Animation’s latest future film showcases the animation they frequently excel at with little for it to elevate.

Kelly+Marie+Tran+stars+as+the+titular+warrior+Raya+on+a+quest+to+save+her+father+from+evil+spirits+known+as+the+Druun.

Courtesy of Disney

Kelly Marie Tran stars as the titular warrior Raya on a quest to save her father from evil spirits known as the Druun.

By Steven Pappas, Sophie Burns, and Olivia Ostrowski

On Thursday, March 5, Disney Animation released “Raya and the Last Dragon” to theaters and its streaming platform with premier access. The film follows the adventures of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a warrior who’s in search of six magical gemstones that will remove evil spirits called the Druun and subsequently save her father. Alongside her is the mythical dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), who defeated the Druun with the gemstones centuries ago.

The film is Disney Animation’s 59th in the studio’s 84-year run. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the film’s release date was pushed back. While it was set to release on Nov. 25, 2020, it instead came out on March 5 of the following year. The film’s release with premier access is also in response to the pandemic’s harsh effect on movie theaters across the world.

For better or for worse, Disney Animation has followed a cookie-cutter formula for most of their recent films. Like their recent outings such as “Moana” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” this piece follows an adventure plot after the conflict is set in stone early on. There’s the main character and their sidekick along the way, the latter of the two being responsible for most of the film’s comedy.

While some of Disney Animation has been able to overcome the constraints of this formula, this film falters. The story is serviceable, but there’s only so far one can travel within their formula. When it becomes ubiquitous, it’s easier to simply map where the story is traveling in one’s mind than be riveted by what’s on the screen. It’s this degree of predictability that makes the movie feel more like a chore than a wondrous experience.

There’s little that the film uniquely adds to the studio’s catalog. While their characters have enough qualities to motivate the plot, there’s nothing there to truly elevate it. Raya’s character is simply a warrior who wants to save her father from the Druun. Sisu simply wants to unite the greed-ridden lands that grew from the ancient, grand Kumandra. There’re traits there but nothing impressive, a sentiment that can be echoed throughout the film’s plot progression.

“It [the film] did feel rushed. This film had so much potential but due to it being about an hour and a half you never really got to feel the larger world as a whole, and it felt lackluster at times,” said Nick Makris, senior.

Awkwafina co-stars as the mythical dragon Sisu who accompanies Raya on her journey. (Courtesy of Disney)

With all of this on display, the film’s message gets lost in the weeds. It frequently preaches about trust as a crucial vector for coming together. It’s a valuable lesson, especially in a world that’s in constant competition for overbearing power. However, the delivery of this message in the context of the story feels forgettable if not jarring. Even without the film’s character development flaws, there isn’t enough that the film has to offer to truly leave its morals ingrained into the audience.

Despite this towering hindrance to the film, it’s able to stand on its own. For the most part, the voice acting on display is one of the film’s strengths. Tran is very believable as Raya and plays her bravado with careful consideration. The minor characters, most of whom act as comedic straits in the film, are also just fine. Awkwafina’s performance has its moments but is overall bogged down by the film’s writing. She tries to channel the energy that Robin Williams gave to Genie in “Aladdin,” but she lacks both Williams’s impeccable comedic timing and consistently good lines. It’s exacerbated by the fact that she’s given the comedic workload as well.

What truly buoys the film, however, is the deft animation that Disney Animations is known for. Each of the settings is vibrant and unique. The film creates a division between each of the different tribes’ places in weather, architectural style, and inhabitants. This extends all the way from bleak towns living a hunter-gatherer life to grandiose marvels isolated by an enormous river. None of them blend in to one another in any way, creating a plethora of environments to be engrossed by.

“I thought the animation in this film was the best I’ve seen yet from Disney. The colors and quality of the images were spectacular. The character coloration was also astoundingly better than previous films,” said Hari Rao, senior.

The film takes its influence from Southeast Asian culture, which really helps add vibrancy to its environments. When Raya searches for the gemstone from the tribe Talon, the town’s lighting is strongly influenced by a plethora of Vietnamese silk lanterns. In general, the settings feel like the animators left no stone unturned. In almost every scene you can garner a whole different picture than the film’s plot just by paying attention to the background.

The film’s score, composed by James Newton Howard, also stands out as one of the film’s strengths. It elevates the cultural aesthetic that the film effectively cultivates and manages to fit with both that and the tone simultaneously. Perhaps its best element are the dramatic tones that play when Raya and her group go into a new tribe’s town. They always serve as a spectacular prelude to the vibe of the town, whether it be a marketplace littered with pickpockets or a near-desolate tundra. It always manages to create some excitement for what’s to come next.

The end result of every part of the film’s design is a satisfactory feeling that Disney Animation so frequently leaves the viewer with. Even if there’s nothing in the film to elevate it to the peak of some animated features, they cultivate enough of an experience to make it worthwhile. And, for a film that fits into the “just fine” range of the studio’s films, that’s enough to leave the audience with something when the credits roll.

You can watch “Raya and the Last Dragon” on Disney+ with premier access or in theaters now.

This story was originally published on Devils’ Advocate on March 18, 2021.