Review: Raya and the Last Dragon

Score: B-

Directors: Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada

Cast: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rated: PG

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's an orphaned kid who must go on a quest to collect magic objects to bring the dead relative back to life. Along the way, there will be friends and enemies and a betrayal. There is a primary adorable creature and several secondary adorable creatures. There will also be a human that turns into an adorable creature. All of this will be told with dazzling animation.

Yes, the most recent version of the Disney template has been applied to Raya and the Last Dragon, which explores Asian cultures. Yes, just like Coco did for Latin American cultures and Brave did for Scottish culture. To be clear: Raya isn't bad, but at this point the story has gotten stale. And new improvements in animation are barely enough to make up for Disney repeating itself yet again.

Kelly Marie Tran voices the titular heroine. With the dragon kingdom in ruins and divided into five warring factions, she's set out to reclaim the fragments of the gem that contained the last of the dragon magic. With each faction holding a small bit of the power, it's just enough to keep the Druun – a faceless purple blob – from destroying everything in its path. Together, of course, the gem could provide enough protection for the entire kingdom.

There's a good and timely lesson here about nations putting aside their distrust and lust for power for the common good. But the movie is far more interested in impressive sword fights, and keeps undercutting this message by having our heroine frequently encounter people from other countries who aren't trustworthy.

Raya and the Last Dragon certainly looks amazing and is often entertaining. But it's so similar to pretty much everything Disney has put out in the last decade that it feels awfully repetitive. The first South Asian Disney Princess deserves more than playing out the same story.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.