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Movie Review: “Raya and the Last Dragon”

There are many movies that are worth seeing, but there are a lot of stinkers as well. My goal here is to weed out the good from the bad.

Theatrical Release: 3/5/2021

Theatrical Release: 3/5/2021

Synopsis

The people in the realm of Kumandra are divided into five factions. Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and her father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) are from the Heart nation, and they have devoted their lives to protecting the sacred Dragon Gem. Benja is the leader of the Heart nation, and he believes deeply that all nations can live together peacefully. Raya is a young warrior with a fire within her, but she does not have much faith in her father’s dream of peace. The Heart nation protects the Dragon Gem, a powerful stone which contains the essence of powerful, magical dragons. The gem serves as a deterrent for the entire land of Kumandra, keeping at bay the dark, dangerous, unstoppable creatures known as the Druun.

Unfortunately, the other four nations believe the possession of the Dragon Gem has given the Heart nation great wealth and fortune. When an opportunity to steal the gem presents itself, the other four nations jump at the chance to take the gem for themselves. The gem is shattered as a result, and each piece has fallen into the possession of a different nation. The gem has been broken and its pieces have been scattered, which allows the Druun to return, threatening the lives of everyone in Kumandra. Raya sets out on a mission to collect the pieces of the gem, but the current nation leaders will not willingly part with their pieces. Raya’s mission starts with finding the legendary last dragon named Sisu (Awkwafina). Sisu has not been seen in generations, and her being alive is only a myth, but the dragons were once a great, powerful, and magical species, and finding the last one would be essential in saving Kumandra from the Druun.

Official Trailer

The Pros & Cons

All movies start with an average score of 75pts, points are then added or subtracted based on each Pro and Con. Each Pro or Con is designated points, ranging from 0-10, to convey how significant these Pros or Cons are.

The ProsThe Cons

Raya & Benja (+8pts)

Namaari (-4pts)

Raya’s Team (+6pts)

Fang & Greed (-3pts)

Sisu (+8pts)

Consequence (-2pts)

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Pro: Raya & Benja (+8pts)

I liked these two characters and the difference in their ideologies. Benja was Raya’s father. He was older, he was wiser, and he was devoted to facilitating peace. He had faith in what the people of Kumandra could be, and his faith cost him dearly. Then there was Raya, who admired her father’s faith in others, but she was far less trusting. I enjoyed how each of these characters thought very differently of the world around them, and I enjoyed seeing how this journey affected Raya philosophy.

Disney has lately done a good job of delivering princesses who were far more than just damsels in distress, and Raya was their latest example. She was a skilled fighter and fierce warrior, and she had a massive grudge against the people of Kumandra after what happened on the night the Dragon Gem was shattered. Raya was far from Disney's first strong female protagonist who could handle herself in a fight, so in that regard, she was not all that original. Still, I enjoyed seeing her in action, and I thought the filmmakers gave her a decently interesting character arc. I liked seeing her grappling with trust and loss, as well as struggling with what kind of leader she wanted to be, and how to save a civilization that seemed almost determined to steer themselves directly into extinction. Raya was an interesting character who kicked plenty of ass, but what made the character so interesting was her story.

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Con: Namaari (-4pts)

I thought Namaari was a pretty one-dimensional and uninteresting antagonist. She betrayed characters when it made absolutely no logical sense to do so. The filmmakers also wanted us to think she was conflicted in her actions, but the reality was that she kept doing the wrong thing, she just sometimes felt bad about it. She should have woken up to the situation around her far sooner, but having her do so would not have been convenient for the story. The filmmakers wanted things to get bad, and their method for making that happen was to have this character be illogically bad, and this went right up until the climax of the movie. It made the character seem dumb and annoying rather than formidable and interesting, and I could not help but think how much more engaging this story could have been if the filmmakers wrote this character better.

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Pro: Raya’s Team (+6pts)

I do not want to give any surprises away, so I will keep this brief, but I really enjoyed the team that Raya had on her journey. First there was Sisu, but she was very much deserving of her own section in this review, so I will get to her later. I liked the armadillo creature that was Raya’s loyal pet and friend, I liked the shrimp fisherman (Izaac Wang), and I liked the intimidating warrior Tong (Benedict Wong), but none of them were as entertaining or memorable as Little Noi (Thalia Tran) and her three monkeys. I do not want to give away their whole deal and why I thought they were so great, but they were a big surprise and they were a whole lot of fun whenever they were on screen. Together, each team member brought their unique personality to the table, and I enjoyed the misfit group they made. They each came from different nations and they only came together because of their shared tragedy and their common enemy, this gave the story a strong sense of purpose, as I felt that some of these were characters would not have teamed up with each other if their circumstances were not dire.

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Con: Fang & Greed (-3pts)

While most of the nations had some level of greed, Fang was the nation that really caused all of this movie’s problems, and I did not buy their motivations at all. They were either generically evil, or generically dumb, because really as soon as everything hit the fan and the Druun returned, everyone involved should have seen their common impending doom, and they should have come together to undo what had been done. Instead, greed served as massive blinders on the antagonists of this story, and it served as a massive plot device for the filmmakers. Greed made the antagonists unable to see their own impending demise from the Druun, and they seemed unable to fathom that it was their actions were directly contributing to their increasingly dire circumstances. I understand that this was just a kids movie, and that was why this did not hurt the movie more than it did, but the complete lack of logic from the antagonists was simply lazy writing.

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Pro: Sisu (+8pts)

This was a magical dragon in an animated Disney movie. Sisu was a powerful dragon who could shape-shift and who had various other magical abilities, which made her cool. She was also the last dragon, a species many thought were entirely extinct, and she had not been seen in ages, which made her feel mythical and legendary. She also felt like Kumandra’s only hope against the Druun, which made her feel incredibly important. Then, on top of all of that, she was voiced by the entertaining Awkwafina, who brought all of her humor and personality to the role. This was an important character, but Awkwafina made it her own, and she in turn made this movie a lot more entertaining whenever her character was on screen.

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Con: Consequence (-2pts)

This story had a few big moments, but the filmmakers avoided all permanent consequences of those moments, and it seemed like a cop out. I am not saying this movie needed tragic death around every corner. This was a kids movie, so it needed a happy ending, but the filmmakers sort of undid every important character moment that happened throughout the story in order to deliver that happy ending. Raya grew as a character from every tragic thing that happened to her throughout this story, so by undoing all of those things and wrapping up this movie in a perfectly happy little bow, it sort of diminished the impact of Raya’s growth.

Grading Scale

GradeCategoryPoints

A+

Amazing

95-100

A-

Great

90-94

B+

Good

85-89

B-

Decent

80-84

C+

Average

75-79

C-

Watchable

70-74

D+

Bad

65-69

D-

Terrible

60-64

F

Garbage

45-59

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Grade: B+ (88pts)

Raya and the Last Dragon was yet another strong animated movie from Disney. It had a strong female lead with Raya, as she was a fierce warrior and her story was interesting. It was interesting to see how Raya's philosophy differed from her father's, and it was interesting to see how the world around her shaped that philosophy. I liked seeing how the character grew throughout this journey, but this movie was more than just its main character. Raya's team was a lot of fun, as literally every character on the team had their own, entertaining personality, but Little Noi and her monkeys were definitely the most entertaining and the most memorable. Then there was Sisu, who was the story's titular last dragon. Sisu's powers made her a cool character, Awkwafina made her a funny character, and her story as the last dragon made her feel integral to the story.

Like any movie, this movie had its flaws. I thought Namaari was a weak, uninteresting, and one-dimensional antagonist, which was crazy when considering how much screen-time the character’s story got. I also thought the Fang nation as a whole was illogically blinded by greed, and there were a few big moments that the filmmakers ended up undoing entirely, removing all sense of consequence from the story. There were certainly things the filmmakers could have done better with the story, but it was still yet another engaging and entertaining animated kids movie from Disney.

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