Friday, May 14, 2021


The non-musical, non-animal Disney animated movies sure are a strange bunch when you get right down to it. Where the song-and-dance spectacles fall into comforting patterns and rhythms with fine variation of tone and character within a consistently sturdy artistry, and the animal efforts generally have a lighter dance across comedy, even if some still dip into heavier emotions, these just spring off at odd angles. There’s the darkly uneven Black Cauldron and the rip-roaring pulp sci-fi Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the buoyant superhero lark Big Hero 6 and the smirking video game goof Wreck-It Ralph, the slapdash mania of Chicken Little and the zippy time-travel loop-de-loop Meet the Robinsons. Some are fun and eccentric; others are mystifying misfires. I suppose you can’t blame them for trying.

The latest, Raya and the Last Dragon, plays it safe. It at first acts like a Moana without the great songs. It, too, is about a headstrong only child of a noble king who must set out across the wilderness to save her people. What’s different here is that Raya — a plucky martial arts expert with a pleasant father — is responsible for a dystopian wasteland after a childhood mistake leaves a precious dragon stone broken and scattered among her country’s five warring factions. The magic jewel was the only thing protecting their lands from rampaging smoking, sparking, purple blobs that turn people to stone. Only by reuniting the pieces can Raya hope to restore the frozen victims, and maybe bring lasting peace to their people. It’s more adventure than princess movie, giving her no family conflict or a need for romance, only tasks to complete to save the world.

The film becomes more formula than narrative — fetch quests unfurled like video game levels, as Raya heists them one at a time, gathering allies along the way, with each new village a chance for imaginative production design and costumes. There’s a lake-town market with a thriving pickpocket economy, a warrior clan nestled in a snowy bamboo forest, and a towering citadel where a matriarchy of regal side-parts rules. This is an impeccably imagined space, an East Asian fusion that understands we’d love a good map, even as the plot within it is cobbled together from fantasy novels and anime epics (shades of Naussica and Mononoke, for sure), martial arts period pieces and side-scrolling adventures. The characters’ designs and weapons — like a sword that unfolds into a combination whip and grappling hook — are cool, Raya cuts a sleek look, and the dragons of old have a Chinese New Year appeal. There’s a bevy of supporting villains, each cartoon threatening in his or her own way, and more cute critters and kids than you'd expect. I was never less than involved in the look and flow and tone of the thing. But it never quite digs in to the emotions with the same tight grip Disney maintains at its best. Here, though, you’re never far from a striking frame, or an admirable beat of economically deployed subtext: a cut to an empty crib that explains a lonely warrior’s sadness without a word, a glance at a statue on a bridge that pings a character’s sad motivation, a soft look of suspicion exchanged between people who really should be friends but for old betrayals. Raya herself can be a bit of a cipher, but her world is bursting with life, characters, and a wisecracking comedic relief fantasy creature. You can see how a kid could get lost in its mythology.

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