Raya and the Last Dragon

2 out of 5

Directed by: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, co-directed by Paul Briggs and John Ripa

Raya kind of fumbles the ball, right from the get-go: panning over a desert vista, with a character narrating to us while she rides a creature across said vista, we’re told: ‘I know what you’re thinking…’ and then our speaker mentions something about the landscape that, to me, wasn’t at all indicated by the actual visuals. Meaning, no: that’s not what I was thinking. Icing on this cake is that there’s no followthrough – the statement just hangs out there, clearly trying to be some kind of daringly direct talk, surely guaranteeing we care about what happens next. But the images are pretty, and lush, and as we zoom in on (and flashback to) a young Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), sneaking her way past Indiana Jones-traps to a glowing gem, and the warrior protecting it, the movie starts to click: the fight choreography is dedicated; the character models are very realistic, if a bit floaty; and once the fight is revealed as training between a daughter and her father (Izaac Wang), we dive into some impressive and complex lore, narrated with incredible lightness – delivering maximum information in a concise and entertaining way.

The high-level of what follows is rather predictable – Raya’s father tries to peacefully unite the various tribes of the area, but a seeming cease-fire proves temporary and squabbles over taking possession of the last remaining Dragon Crystal cause things to go very wrong – but we’re still in a realm that combines most of the good beats of the movie: the mo-cap / animation is nearly uncanny-valley natural; the fights are quality; the set design makes for continually pretty or interesting. We flash back forward to an older Raya, hunting down potential dragons-in-hiding to right the world of the wrongs that were unleashed those years ago when the Crystal was smashed; this is a good premise, as it’s clear, works with the lore, and gives us instant quests to check off. Movie’s still clicking.

Until it fumbles again.

Our first dragon is summoned with a puff of incredibly realistic smoke, and the well-embellished reveal of the dragon from that smoke made me realize: this is gonna become a damn funny-animal-companion movie. Out pops the blur of blue fur Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. Now, look, I was interested in this movie because of Awkwafina, so her presence or her being a funny character aren’t necessarily the issue, it’s more just that it’s a drastic break in tone. Raya, and her struggles, were relative realism; a fantasy world, sure, but thus far – excepting her little bug buddy, Tuk Tuk (voiced by Alan Tudyk) – humans, and the movie was granted some gravitas in how well the animation and actors were bringing that to life. Sisu is the cartoon character, with the Disney eyes and wish-fulfillment gleefulness, and when she’s stacked side-by-side with Raya – it just doesn’t work. They exist in two different movies. This discrepancy – this rift – makes it hard to feel immersed in scenes where these two elements are failing to mingle, and there seems to be some carryover to a distinct lack of passion between characters – the two different worlds means characters from each always seem one step removed from each other – and even to the scenery, which is colorful, and beautiful… but also very closed frame, with centralized focuses. There are no background details to notice here; no jokes or slapstick executed by characters in the background. And all of this further highlights that predictability problem: the lore doesn’t matter very much, and we’re just going to follow along with an all-too-typical “adventure” story template, with some forced speedbumps tossed in here and there to extend the runtime to nearly two hours.

The final scenes do get some pep back, because they’re once more squarely set in the “real,” with some tense fights and action camera work. But this is fleeting. Ultimately, the movie commits the sin of a blockbuster: you don’t have to be good, but you should at least distract, and I found my attentions very much wandering during Raya, despite its pretensions as an epic.