After a few Chicken Little-sized polarizing Walt Disney Animation debacles, The Mouse came out on top again with films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. It seems like 2009 was the turning point, and in recent years, Frozen and Zootopia have joined the coveted one billion dollar gross club. It keeps going up for Disney, but that momentum had to eventually ease up somewhere. To be clear, Raya and the Last Dragon is a fun film. At times, it’s great. But it’s also very safe and very formulaic.
At a runtime of nearly two hours, Raya is a bit of an immediate tough sell. At the start we get a grand Lord of the Rings style exposition dump that sets up the “fractured kingdom” angle and the big bad (faceless puffs of mist called the Druun). But the real enemy, you see, is humankind itself: which is laboriously explained throughout.
Raya cleverly mixes several genres of film and adds a hefty serving off anachronistic dialogue into the mix to, successfully, replicate the “epic absurdity” of some classic ‘90s renaissance films. The animated version of Mulan is a clear influence, with Raya standing in for Mulan; and Sisu, the titular last dragon (Awkwafina), playing the happy-go-lucky and comic foil companion.
It’s actioney, it’s heisty, it’s dramatic. It’s an amalgam of many other forms of popular media, with its own spice thrown in for good measure. There’s weird wildlife that the movie makes a point to linger on at times, and Awkwafina is fantastic with her banter as Sisu (and is arguably the most interesting character in the movie). The various regions the duo visits also look colorful and aesthetically diverse. It checks a lot of boxes.
But in that attempt at worldbuilding, Raya and the Last Dragon tries to do a little too much with its whopping nearly two hour runtime. Without spoiling anything major, Raya aims to explore all four of the other kingdoms throughout the film, which takes up an inordinate amount of time, but also feels rushed in that same breath. It’s strange, because clear theme of “uniting the clans” is obvious, but we barely get enough time in some of these places to really let them sink in. It’s spread too thin. Raya and the Last Dragon is a combination of many other stories before it, but it never reaches the point where it feels like it loses its own identity. It’s bright, vibrant, warm, and worth losing yourself in during a rainy afternoon.