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Ah, it’s good to breathe in your glorious dragon stench again.

Raya and the Last Dragon
(2021)

(SPOILERS) It may have been entirely germane to the writers’ room process, spitballing hither and thither, but it’s very noticeable that Raya and the Last Dragon runs with Avengers: Endgame’s – and Steven Moffat’s, for that matter – principle that nothing stays dead for long, so divesting young, impressionable minds of one of the basic unassailables of life. Who knows why such false narratives have attained such currency currently. Could it be a means to dilute the sting of mass devastation by creating a mythic salvation, one where the world one has known may still become tangible once more, if only in virtual, escapist sense? On the other hand, it might just be symptomatic of creative doldrums, where the greatest inspiration one can hope for is being inspired to copy someone else.

Raya and the Last Dragon has some decent ideas going on, despite habitually falling back on formulaic characters and devices. The realisation of the Druun is genuinely effectively creepy; yes, it’s presenting the prerequisite apocalyptic predictive programming of a world ruined thanks to “people being people” – the general disparagement of us, the masses, as opposed to those who promulgate the dyspeptic paradigm - and “a plague born from human discord” (hmm, what does that sound like, all the more so for being a metaphoricplague). Emphasising the point, the Druun are identified as “mindless parasites”.

If that side represents your standard-issue “we’re to blame for our environment so get what we deserve” scenario, the execution is fairly strong stuff for a Disney movie. Turning victims to stone is the material of myth (Medusa) but the visualisation, of crackling energy forms, not so far from Venom, roaming the countryside (or what was once countryside) lends the proceedings a pervadingly unsettling atmosphere. So much so, you can tell it was consciously reined in rather than run with.

What we’re to make of the idea that 500 years ago (movie time), humans lived alongside dragons is anyone’s guess, as the dragon (reptilian) is only variably depicted as a bountiful force. These ones are positively fluffy and cuddly, not at all personifications of the cruel bringers of control and oppression (and fiery demise). Make of that what you will. Disney loves to rehabilitate the antagonists just now, but to be fair, there’s precedent in children’s literature’s for such a take on dragon lore. This one is much closer to The NeverEnding Story’s Falkor. For the Mouse House, besides Pete’s Dragon, Eddie Murphy played one in the (relatively) fun version of Mulan, and this particular fun dragon is voiced by Awkwafina, failing to carry off the improv laugh riot clearly being angled for, and infinitely preferable in dragon form than Awkwafina facsimile human version (somewhat amusingly, resembling nothing so much as a bag lady Awkwafina).

Most of the story elements – strong, attitudinous heroine (Raya) and opposing number (Namaari) as mortal frenemies; priceless artefact that must be reconstituted through the heroine’s quest in order to re-empower the land (the dragon’s gem, shattered by divided humans); comedy sidekicks (kid chef Boun, farting con-baby Noi); endearing pet (Tuk Tuk, armadillo/bug whom Raya rides around the countryside, like something out of a reject concept design for Mortal Engines) – are serviceable, but none of them are remotely inspired.

One can see a similar energy at work in co-director Don Hall’s earlier Big Hero 6, but also that movie’s slightly facile quality. Aside from the environment, there’s very little that is striking here, and indeed, everyone involved ultimately means well, villains and heroes simply overstepping the marks and eventually all living amenably. Well, except for those Druun (evil spirits, per Wiki), who perhaps aren’t even real at all…

There are reliable vocal turns from Benedict Wong (warrior Tong) and Alan Tudyk (Tuk Tuk). As for Kelly Marie Tran, who replaced Casssie Steel because she had the requisite “lightness and buoyancy, but also badassery” the role needed… Uh-huh. Raya is determinedly earnest and dull, as you’d expect from what we’ve seen of Tran so far, if you’re disposed to generalise. Tran apparently interpreted the relationship between Raya and the slightly butch Namaari as romantic, Well, of course, she did.

Disney, quite rightly, or wrongly, can do nothing right, since that’s inevitable when you trip over yourself attempting to win brownie points for best diversity casting evah. So, instead of Raya and the Last Dragon winning them all the kudos, it’s been noted in repudiatory terms that they managed to plumb for a predominately East Asian cast in a movie set in Southeast Asia. Obviously, that was neither here nor there with regard to its box office – simply the Twitterati and Tinseltowners tying themselves in knots – although, the movie did have a feeble reception, such is the eroded theatrical landscape. Who knows what the uptake was on Disney+. It’s taken me this long to see it.

The climax hinges on the realisation that “It’s not about magic. It’s about trust”. You know, just before a reset brings everyone back to life. No, it is about magic. Which is fine, but don’t be so apologetic. Don’t wear your metaphors on your chin so much, and you might attract more viewers who know they’re going to have fun, rather than expecting to be preached at. Raya and the Last Dragon’s an okay, undemanding flick, of the sort that gets quickly forgotten and so resurfaces on underrated lists a few years later. But it’s not going to turn it into anything more than okay, really, between now and then.


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