Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 54 min.

Release Date: March 5th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada Actors: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Dichen Lachman

 


 

A

lone rider in a dystopian world races across barren terrain – a rather trite character in a rather trite setting. But the narrator, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), calls attention to these unoriginal motifs, explaining that 500 years ago, the people of Kumandra lived harmoniously alongside water-bringing dragons, which provided for a lush expanse. It was the arrival of a mindless plague, in the form of a monster dubbed the Druun (akin to Hexxus from “FernGully,” though more commonplace, appearing like every smokey elemental creature in video games and movies over the last decade), spreading like wildfire, that turned the landscape and inhabitants into ash and stone. The last surviving dragon blasted the Druun away with a magical gem, restoring humankind – but the dragons themselves weren’t resurrected. Rather than embracing the return of peace, the various human groups split apart into warring nations, opting instead to fight over the gem – which is believed to both bring prosperity and serve as a mighty weapon – throughout the centuries.

“I might be a little bit of a dragon nerd.” Raya and her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim), are part of the Heart village, which currently guards the dragon gem in a massive, booby-trapped, cavernous temple. Benja hopes to one day unify the neighboring civilizations – named Talon, Tail, Spine, and Fang – but they’re more interested in stealing the last vestige of dragon power for themselves to reign supreme over their brethren. When a charitable feast between the clans provides an opportunity for espionage, the gem is destroyed and the blackish-purplish plague beast escapes once again, turning everything in its path to stone.

In the land of Tail, six years later, Raya journeys on an epic quest to locate Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, fabled to still be in slumber at the end of a river. It’s a lonely trek, with few other survivors wandering the wastelands, and unknown hazards at every turn. Plus, Raya isn’t the only one attempting to find Sisu, all while the chiefs of the five factions continue to hunt each other down. “The world’s broken.”

Problematically, when legends and the occult are involved, the progression of the story feels as if made up spontaneously. There’s excitement and daredevilry (some in the vein of the adventures of Indiana Jones), but it’s all impromptu, with predicaments derived on a whim and solutions likewise conjured on the spot. It’s difficult to become emotionally invested in these types of fantasy premises, since any sequence of potential danger or demise is apparent only in the moment – and a quick fix can be summoned in the blink of an eye. Even the animals are chimerical, explained away in their introductory scenes, possessing characteristics and capabilities used mere seconds after those definitions are unveiled. And requirements for Raya’s quest are presented this way, too; she follows rivers, chants spells, and visits the adjacent kingdoms only because she feels compelled to do so (or because a myth suggests it).

Fortunately, much of the film is action-packed; it’s largely about accomplishing a perilous crusade, encountering enemy after enemy while surviving one deadly undertaking after another (including vengeful duels). Allies are collected, such as young Captain Boun (Izaac Wang) and hulking Spine warrior Tong (Benedict Wong) – like in “Clash of the Titans,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings,” or the many Harryhausen swords-and-sorcery pictures – each adding a unique skill (Raya even has a trusty steed called Tuk Tuk, which is an armadillo-type critter, curiously voice-credited to Alan Tudyk, despite the fact that it never speaks), while a map keeps popping up to illustrate how to infiltrate and abscond with gem shards. The expedition grows more complex when needed, or takes breaks for extra backstory details to draw things out before the climax, escalating frenzy but diminishing creativity.

Unfortunately, regardless of the little plot points that stretch this tale out to feature-length, the story is hopelessly generic; sequences of betrayal, teamwork, trust, redemption, and showdowns are disappointingly predictable. Magical elements come to the rescue, but it’s never reasonable that they should work, nor is it disclosed how they operate – the debilitating epitome of contrived. And none of these characters impart even a glimmer of originality; the heroes are good because they’re expected to be, the villains evil for the same purpose. It also doesn’t help that the theme is predominantly one of humanity’s irredeemable heinousness and its unquenchable thirst for self-destruction; some audiences may just root for the Druun to win. Plus, the humor rarely makes its mark – though a con-baby and her trio of simian cohorts garner a laugh or two, even if they’re completely unfitting in a fantasy world in which they should have been alien species. And though the animation is exceptional (Walt Disney Animation Studios excels in this arena), the visuals alone aren’t enough to save a project from such colossal storytelling mediocrity.

– Mike Massie

  • 3/10