It’s become the cinematic mantra for the pandemic. “If only we could’ve seen it on the big screen.” And, while no end of release dates have been pushed back for that exact reason, some haven’t changed, with the result that the film debuts on streaming services. Disney has yet to announce their plans for Black Widow, still scheduled to arrive before the earliest re-opening date for UK cinemas, but they’ve opted for an online release for their latest animation, Raya And The Last Dragon. Such is the advantage of owning your own channel.
Whether it will recoup its production budget remains to be seen, but the business brains at the House Of Mouse know it contains all the elements that sell at the box office – adventure, spectacle, a courageous heroine, beautiful animation and diversity. With the marketing in place, all it needs now is some enthusiastic word of mouth – and there’s no reason why that shouldn’t be forthcoming. While this tale of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) starts with an extensive back story involving folklore, dragon magic and the reason behind the division of the world of Kumandra, the narrative and script has more than enough action to carry the audience along into the heart of the story. Her mission is to reunite the kingdom after an effort to re-establish peace ends in disaster and it’s a quest that involves the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) and the prospect of humans and dragons living side by side in peace again.
In an age of sequels and re-boots, a whole new story makes a refreshing change, although this one is peppered with derivative moments, calling to mind the likes of Moana and Frozen. There’s also the distinct feeling that Awkwafina’s flirty – and sometimes flaky – dragon is an animated descendant of Aladdin’s Genie, but she’s held back by a shortage of good one-liners. Fun though Awkwafina is in the role, her talents aren’t allowed to soar in the way we hope. Nonetheless, she and Kelly Marie Tran have some great scenes together, with Tran shining as the latest in the new breed of Disney princesses, one who kicks ass but holds on to a kind heart.
Visually, the film is a triumph – we’ll resist the temptation to repeat that mantra – giving the five factions instant identities that reflect their leaders. But, again, you won’t be able to escape the visual nod in the direction of Star Wars as Raya starts her quest: her mode of transport and the barren landscape seem to have been lifted straight out of The Mandalorian. The animation, from the staggeringly real water to the action sequences and Sisu’s touchable fur is simply breathtaking, as is the final showdown between Raya and her nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan), which takes its inspiration from Chinese action cinema. A genuine family film with this level of high octane action doesn’t come along very often, but this is one of those times.
Inevitably, the usual Disney values are there as well – family, trust, loyalty – but they’re a given. For all its visual impact – and it hits you right between the eyes – Raya And The Last Dragon relies just a touch too heavily on re-working ideas from other titles to be considered a true original and a classic. But it will engage, excite, entertain and, inevitably, prompt a tear or two. We can ask for little more.
Animation, Comedy, Adventure | Cert: PG | Disney Plus | Dir. Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada| The voices of Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim and Benedict Wong.