Continuing their experiment in the world of digital releases, Disney has made their new animated film Raya and the Last Dragon simultaneously available in theaters and on their streaming service, Disney+. Raya marks the second time they have released a movie using Premier Access, which requires a one-time $30 fee on top of a Disney+ subscription and gives unlimited access to the movie before June 4th, when all subscribers can stream it for free.
With theatrical exclusivity looking increasingly unlikely to survive the pandemic, I expect this premium-hybrid approach to be something the studio continues to play with post-COVID, as long as it works better for them this time around than it did for Mulan. And it definitely should – while Mulan’s lukewarm response made it an easy movie to wait for, Raya is a whole-family winner, and those that pull the Premier Access trigger are unlikely to regret their investment.
Inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, Raya and the Last Dragon takes place in the dragon-shaped land of Kumandra, long divided into five sections named for their place on the creature’s body. Since the legendary last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), sacrificed herself to defeat the evil Druun spirits 500 years prior, the five tribes have warred over the dragon gem, the last remnant of magic that protects their world. When a gamble for peace by the gem’s current protector, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart tribe, returns the Druun to their world, his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) embarks on a quest to revive Sisu and restore the gem before the spirits turn all Kumandra’s inhabitants to stone.
As you might have guessed, Raya is a fantasy-adventure with an expansive storyworld, the development and design of which is easily the film’s greatest strength. The colorful, intricate animation is constantly beautiful to look at, and viewers of all ages will enjoy encountering new details and textures as they journey from one tribe to the next. Full of action sequences, the film succeeds most when it cultivates a sense of Indiana Jones-esque fun, which it does often. The supporting characters are also frequently delightful, from Awkwafina’s naïve, jokey dragon to a “con-baby” and her squad of monkeys that have my vote for the film’s most significant contribution to the Disney canon.
Raya herself, while voiced well by Tran, is a bit of a one-note protagonist, especially when compared to the other princesses of this era. Marked by a betrayal in her youth, she is very reluctant to trust in others, and this one element of her arc is restated so often that it consumes the rest of her personality. That said, with her positioned as an avenging action hero, this doesn’t end up hurting the film all that much – as long as she’s sufficiently badass, the supporting cast will fill in the necessary color around her. From the perspective of female empowerment, it’s almost refreshing that the film lets Raya and her antagonist-double Namaari (Gemma Chan) just be skilled, quippy warrior-leaders with underbaked personalities, an archetype so often reserved for young men. Whether in theaters or from the comfort of home, Raya and the Last Dragon is an easily fun evening, and probably the newest addition to many a kid’s Disney rotation.
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