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Disney purchased Pixar way back in 2006, and many incredible animated films have been released under both banners. Therefore, it’s quite understandable that many people don’t recognize the difference between Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar itself. The latter studio released two movies just last year (Onward, Soul), while the former’s latest original film dates back to 2016’s Moana. So, there was a lot of anticipation for a new animated movie from the studio that gave us classics such as Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, and more recently, the Frozen saga. With Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting) at the helm, and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen (feature-film debut) tackling the screenplay, did they succeed in delivering a good film?
Well, if I must answer “yes” or “no”, I’ll go with the first one. Let’s start with the positives. The one thing everyone expects from a Disney animated movie is beautiful animation, and Raya and the Last Dragon features tons of gorgeous, creative, jaw-dropping sceneries. The different lands that the story takes the viewers through look impressively realistic, some of them clearly drawing inspiration from real Asian places and culture. The character drawings also look excellent, even though they’re not too far from what we’ve seen from 3D animation in the last few years.
Technically though, my standout goes to James Newton Howard’s addictive, chill-inducing score. From the emotional tracks to the riveting tones that elevate every action sequence, it’s a score that I’ll struggle to get out of my head for the next couple of weeks, especially its main theme. In fact, I’m actually listening to it while writing this review, and I’m feeling full of energy. The sound effects for the Druun monsters are pretty eerie, it’s hard not to feel the weight of their threatening presence, but the inspirational, tear-inducing soundtracks leave me floored. The action scenes are wonderfully shot and animated, bringing high levels of entertainment and excitement to a partially adventure-driven narrative. Raya’s sword fighting is indisputably the most captivating type of battle seen throughout the entire runtime.
Story-wise is where things get a little disappointing, to be completely honest. While the visuals share outstanding imagination and creativity, Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen’s formulaic screenplay is much more straightforward and unsurprising than expected. I knew Raya and the Last Dragon wasn’t going to deliver a groundbreaking narrative, but a videogame-style script is far from being a good alternative. The third act tries to challenge its story’s predictability with one little unexpected moment that I undoubtedly love, but besides not changing the outcome predicted in the first ten minutes of the film, it severely damages a secondary character.
Regarding this last issue, I can’t deny that it’s my main problem with the movie, but I would have to go into spoiler territory to fully explain it. Therefore, I’ll only address the character’s inconsistency, which unfortunately affects the film’s primary message. The main themes revolve around trust and how if we treat other people kindly, they’ll treat us in the same way. A lovely note that parents will surely want to transmit to their kids, without the shadow of a doubt. However, the character in question spends the movie not knowing where to stand, constantly betraying everyone, and even blaming others for something that same character triggered in the first place.
Despite having a significantly negative impact on my enjoyment of the film, the ending does work quite well and compensates for my problem with the said character. Kelly Marie Tran lends her voice to Raya, a protagonist easy to root for due to her clear motivations and important mission, while Awkwafina is very funny as Sisu, a goofy dragon with more depth than what the viewers might expect from the first impression. Everyone in the cast delivers extraordinary voice work, and every character has some sort of captivating trait that makes the audience support them, except for you know who. Having in mind that kids are indeed the target audience, I’m positive all will feel delighted with this movie.
Boasting a predominantly Asian American cast, all delivering exceptional voice work, Raya and the Last Dragon follows a partially disappointing, formulaic narrative but compensates it with stunning animation, a chill-inducing score, and quite a nice ending. Walt Disney Animation Studios returns with an original story that lacks surprising elements, lending all the creativity and imagination to its entertaining, fast-paced adventure packed with undeniably impactful visuals and incredibly riveting action sequences. Despite a significant problem with an inconsistent character that profoundly affects my enjoyment of the film, all other characters are extremely likable, goofy, and well-written. A delightful message about trust and treating others kindly is ultimately well-transmitted to the viewers, which I hope parents will show their kids. Final remark: James Newton Howard’s score will not leave your minds for a long, long time.