Raya and the Last Dragon is a story about learning to trust and believe that other people want a better world just as much as we do. It is a story about finding a way to unite in a world that has been fractured by fear and insecurity.
Much as we tried to resist getting drawn into Disney’s classic formula, the musical score and beautiful animation were just too much to endure. We told ourselves that we’ve seen these clichés already, and we can see the foreshadowing from a mile away. Our stone-cold heart has seen these tropes enough times in other movies. But alas, Disney’s screenwriters just have more years of training and experience pushing the right buttons in their audience.
The movie’s score was genuinely moving. Their silence and slow fade during important scenes made moments more palpable and heavy. At the same time, their climb into crescendos made hopeful scenes also all the more cathartic and uplifting.
To our pleasant surprise, the movie did not follow many of the clichés we’d come to expect from them. There were no musicals in this movie, no one suddenly jumping into a song and dance to narrate what they were feeling. And what it lacked in a romantic subplot, it made up for with a well-developed rivalry that was deepened with combat. Who knew Disney could make such polished martial arts choreography?
The visuals and aesthetics of the movie were resplendent. We found ourselves intermittently distracted by the lushness of the trees in their forests, the crisp reflection found in the droplets of water, and the amount of texture you could see on the petals of flowers. If there’s one thing this movie got right, it would be this.
One thing we did not enjoy though was the exposition that bogged it down at times. It felt like a waste that the culture of each of the tribes they visited was told rather than shown. The atmosphere and color of the different tribes were really rich and lovely, so we found it a shame it was not accompanied by lore and backstories that had just as much hue.
The first two long cuts in the movie are an explanation of their world’s mythos and history. And it’s followed by a flashback of the catastrophe that leads into the present. We’re not a fan of these devices as much as the next critic, but it is partially remedied by the gorgeous animation.
There’s also a large ensemble of characters that are given minimal screen time. An unfortunate consequence of making the message of the story work, as all those characters serve an important role in the plot. We just wish they’d done a more thorough job as most of them were genuinely interesting.
Verdict: Brutally Approved. Overall, the movie is worth the watch if you have Disney+. We went into it not expecting much, but we were thoroughly entertained.
If you’re interested in reading more reviews about Disney movies, check out this other one from our archive.