Skip to main content

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

Raya and the Last Dragon

(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.

Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

Three. Two. One. Lift with your neck.

Red Notice  (2021) (SPOILERS) Red Notice rather epitomises Netflix output. Not the 95% that is dismissible, subgrade filler no one is watching but is nevertheless churned out as original “content”. No, this would be the other, more select tier constituting Hollywood names and non-negligible budgets. Most such fare still fails to justify its existence in any way, shape or form, singularly lacking discernible quality control or “studio” oversight. Albeit, one might make similar accusations of a selection of legit actual studio product too, but it’s the sheer consistency of unleavened movies that sets Netflix apart. So it is with Red Notice . Largely lambasted by the critics, in much the manner of, say 6 Underground or Army of the Dead , it is in fact, and just like those, no more and no less than okay.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993) (SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct , but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it. Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare ( Clear and Present Danger , Salt ) also adept at “smart” smaller pict