Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2021. Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures. Story by Paul Briggs, Don Hall, Adele Lim, Carlos López Estrada, Kiel Murray, Qui Nguyen, John Ripa, Dean Wellins, Screenplay by Qui Nguyen, Adele Lim. Cinematography by Rob Dressel. Produced by Peter Del Vecho, Osnat Shurer. Music by James Newton Howard. Production Design by Helen Mingjue Chen, Paul A. Felix, Cory Loftis. Costume Design by Brooklyn El-Omar. Film Editing by Fabienne Rawley, Shannon Stein.
A mythical kingdom stitched together from elements of various southeast Asian cultures and fables is a land of warring factions that, centuries earlier, had been one peaceful nation called Kumandra. In the past there were dragons that lived among humans and gave them water and protection, but when cloud-like creatures of doom called Druuns were unleashed upon the land, they began turning people and dragons to stone. Before vanishing from existence, a group of dragons ended the battle by gathering their energies up into a gemstone which restored human life, setting the foundation for a myth that would last centuries, that there was one last dragon still remaining who could restore their kind as well.
The five lands of what was once Kumandra are named after parts of a dragon, and Raya is a resident of Heart, where her father is tasked with being the guardian of the gemstone. He desires to unite these nations once again, but his attempt to do so is a disaster that brings suspicious and defensive tribes to a summit that quickly devolves into arguments over his right to be keeper of the stone, which then leads to a physical struggle that sees the precious stone broken into pieces. The weakened gemstone removes the barrier to the netherworld and the Druuns return, which means that Raya must go on a quest to find the last dragon and reunite the pieces of the stone in order to not only restore the humans who are being petrified one by one, but to also make Kumandra all one kingdom again.
The set-up is far too complicated to understand for a film that actually ends up being the same incident-laden quest that Disney animated films have already indulged us in on many an occasion, with a heroine who is, yes, a refreshingly fierce feminist heroine, but one who has been cobbled together from a number of cliched personality traits that aren’t the same aggravating cliches of past princess but are just as plastic: she has masterful fighting skills, she’s sarcastic when patronized and is always kind to creatures smaller than herself, but also doesn’t have much of a personality.
The proceedings get a lift when her journey gets underway and she locates Sisu, the dragon she’s been looking for, a humorously silly retread of Eddie Murphy’s character in Mulan voiced by the always affable Awkwafina. The two of them pick up a few more companions along the way, Raya faces some enemies of the past and everything boils down to an exciting conclusion full of wonder and enchantment. The film advocates world peace through its message, that trusting others can only happen if we also offer up our own good faith (unique from the usual narrative of ultimate victory and vanquishing of an evil foe), but the actual adventure that Raya goes on to accomplish this isn’t challenging or exciting enough, we’re made to invest a great deal in the details of this world and its rules before the stakes unravel far too easily for it to be among the studio’s most deeply satisfying efforts.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Animated Feature
Critics Choice Award Nomination: Best Animated Feature
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Animated Feature