It seems that gone are the days of the “classic” Disney Princess and if young girls want a role model that kicks-ass, is assertive and holds the responsibility of the whole world in her grasp, Disney is one of the the places to find them. When we meet Raya, she is a warrior training to be guardian of a magical stone which is keeping the evil of the movie at bay. Its a great introduction to her character, in a film which is filled with some fantastic characters anyway, and sets this animated Disney film as one which is different, more mature and firmly in the fantasy-adventure genre.
The opening sequence, which essentially sets up the rest of the film, involving betrayal and a battle between tribes, is a well-realised, action-packed set-piece and one which shows the power of animation, especially when done as well as Disney does it. The film then makes a bold step to jump ahead five years and we meet an even more mature, focused and capable Raya, and the film continues to be action-focused, with some great moments and exciting scenes throughout.
There is depth to the movie though and this comes from some great characters. This is a journey movie, a quest where Raya is collecting pieces of the aforementioned magic stone and subsequently, and quite inadvertently, creating a team to help her save the world. The characters that make-up that team range from the silly, cute and misunderstood. They all have their own tragedy that they are facing though and as funny as their dynamic as a rag-tag team is, it is one built on a core that you care about as the film progresses.
Of all the characters, the stand-out is Awkwafina’s Sisu. Sisu is the titular dragon of the title and her naïve, wide-eyed enthusiasm in a world she has very little experience of, is what makes her work so well. Awkwafina brings a comedy and charm to the character that is the foundation of her meteoric Hollywood star rising too. She is also the core and key to a great central story which, again, holds more depth than the usual Disney fare.
As with most animated movies aimed at kids, there is a central theme and almost a moral message. Disney usually balances this well and Raya is no different. The theme of trust is the core to the whole movie but surprisingly, the story doesn’t necessarily progress the way you think it would. It builds to a great finale, with some nail-biting action and real emotional heft.
In fact, at times the action can be a little too tense. The movie has a more mature slant and while that is great for the teenagers and adults, it can be a little much, with some fairly scary villains and some older themes overall. This is counter-balanced by the fact that at times, Raya can be slightly predictable and although there are some surprises, at other times you can predict the direction of key elements quite easily.
Overall, Raya and the Last Dragon is a showcase for how well Disney uses its animated expertise. A great story, led by a kick-ass female protagonist with a story that is told in a mature and often surprising way. The action is nail-biting and emotion adds well-needed depth. At times it strays slightly too far towards the mature side and there are some predictable elements which let it down though.
Rating – 4
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