VERIFICATION: Paradise and the Last Dragon (2021)

Movie reviews

This Friday, the fifth. In March, Disney will release Raya and the Last Dragon in both cinemas and Disney+ for an additional cost. Disney’s latest animated film is set in a fictional South Asian country called Kumandra. The incumbent heroine is played by Kelly Marie Tran and must find and recruit Sisa (Awkwafina), the world’s last dragon, to unite the warring tribes and save Kumandra. When I saw the trailers for Raya, I was excited. I still play Disney animation, and the sets and graphics made it my most anticipated film of 2020 (and 2021 after it was delayed). The marketing campaign reminded me of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I love these series, and since Raya and The Last Dragon are also inspired by Asian cultures, it could be a coincidence. Does Disney’s latest animated film live up to expectations, or is this dragon a failure? Well, let’s see.

In Raya and the Last Dragon, the protagonist leads triumphantly through a wasteland of sand and stone. Raya intervenes as narrator and offers to explain how things could have ended so badly. First, we get a large section describing the creation of a magical jewel by dragons to protect humanity from the scourge known as Druun. Druuns are creatures of human struggle and fear only water and the combined magic of dragons. The film then delves into Raya’s story, showing her initiation as Guardian of the Jewel, a mantle her family has passed down from generation to generation. Raya’s father, Chief Benjah (Daniel Dae Kim), invites the tribes of neighboring countries to eat together and talk about peace. He wants all the countries to unite and become Kumandra again, but saying the same thing only increases the struggle. Raya befriends someone from one of the visiting tribes, but her new friend takes advantage of the opportunity to steal the dragon gem. The attempt only attracts the attention of the other tribes, and the jewel is broken in the commotion. This frees the Druuns and darkness spreads across the land. It’s up to Raya and a team of friends from all the warring nations to find Sisu, recover the gem and save the world.

First, I want to talk about the obvious: Raya and the Last Dragon is a visual delight. From start to finish, every texture, facial expression and movement is incredibly believable. Fabrics, hair, foliage and even stone have never looked so good in computer-generated images. I also really like the design of the characters. Sisu is very different from the usual dragon I expect in cartoons. Her look suits her personality and Awkwafina’s vocal performances very well. Raya looks like a cross between Pocahontas and Moana, but I’m not complaining. She is absolutely beautiful and I am glad they decided to let her be beautiful and able to fight. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, you can be cool and fabulous. Namaari (Gemma Chan) is scary and very different from her own people. Tong (Benedict Wong) is also quite threatening, but his design is charming and works very well once he joins the main cast.

I especially liked the traditional (or maybe flash?) animated segments, such as the creation of the gem and later the secondary character’s attempt to obtain one of the gems. The way these scenes unfolded combined with the bombastic score and striking fight choreography reminded me of Kung Fu Panda. From my point of view, this is the biggest compliment a film in this category can receive. In fact, the action is one of the best (and most unexpected) elements of Paradise and the Last Dragon. The hero is waving a sword and going to save the world, so I was expecting a fight. It’s one of the most visually exciting fight choreographies Mouse House has released since Mulan, and it’s even faster thanks to the digital element. Big Hero 6 is not even on the same playing field in this regard. Raya is closer to something like Kung Fu Panda or even Unbelievable because of its inventive use of framing, fluid movement and dynamic angles during action scenes.

James Newton Howard’s score rises during these dramatic confrontations and is subtly felt during the more intimate interactions. I loved his work on Atlantis: Lost Empire and especially Treasure Planet, so I was more than happy to see him collaborate with Disney again. I can’t say enough about Howard’s music, he is one of my favorite composers and his work speaks for itself. The voice in Paradise and the Last Dragon is pretty good, but not great. I was happy to hear Daniel Dae Kim, the voice of General Fong in Avatar: The Last Airbender and Hiroshi in The Legend of Korra as Raya’s father. He’s a great voice actor and he gets along well with Tran for his short film. Kelly Marie Tran is quite nice as Raya, and I like Aukwafina as Sisu. But, perhaps ironically, I appreciate Sisu’s moments of wisdom and sad memories far more than the jokes she tells. The comedy is pretty weak in Paradise, especially when compared to other recent Disney films like Moana and Zootopia. The characters speak too much modern jargon. Disney did it with Genie and Maui, but they were really funny, and that was good because they were omniscient gods. In this movie, everyone occasionally speaks slang, the main character calls himself a nerd dragon, and there are even jokes about butts. It really detracts from the fantasy and drama of the story. It would have been better if it was just about the dragon, but there’s too much humor in it.

All this to say that Raya and the Last Dragon is not a perfect film, not even close. I almost said the color coding of the logs was a design issue in the film. But I did notice that Black Panther, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and a number of other popular franchises have done the same. In none of these cases did it bother me or even distract me from the overall story. It often happens to me that something in a movie/series bothers me, but I don’t understand why because it happened elsewhere and I didn’t mind or even like it. Really, I think it’s because colors are not a design issue. They look great and I’m sure it will help children (the main audience of the film) see the difference between these large groups of people. The real problem with warring tribes is that their identities are divided. You can paint the people of Fang in gold and white and the people of Talon in purple all you want, but they fit together because the characters themselves are no different.

The film tries to remedy this situation by giving Raya from each tribe a friend to join her quest – again, a bit like in Avatar : The Last Airbender and a lot of fantasy stories with warring factions. But in Avatar, each race had its own set of beliefs and goals that made sense and adequately reflected real life without having to abandon fantasy. All the tribes of Raya want the gem because they are selfish and stupid. It goes against the message the film is trying to convey, and I don’t know why other tribes are treated this way. If your movie is about how we should all work together and stop fighting (which I agree with), don’t just use those factions as obstacles the hero has to overcome. There is a scene between Namaari and his mother, Boss Virana (Sandra Oh), who takes a peek behind the curtain. Namaari tries to do the right thing, and his mother explains to him why things are the way they are. There is also a moment when young Namaari tells Raya that she rarely eats rice because it is not as tasty as it looks. You could say that they tried to make it a complicated situation where everyone suffers and no one is to blame, but they failed. If you want everyone to be nice and have a valid point, show us.

Sisu spends a lot of time preaching to Raya and the last half of the dragon about trust and faith. Again, I agree with that message. It’s a great concept for a movie, especially now. But I am on Raya’s side because Namaari has caused the problem that Raya is trying to solve. She shows no remorse and doesn’t try to help Raya fix it. On the contrary, Namaari is a nuisance and tries to kill Raya before it’s almost too late. It’s clear that the message of the film will be true from the start, so they could at least try to make it a little more believable. I like that Raya has an understandable and realistic character flaw, which is that she can’t trust people. I like that she befriends other tribes who show her that there are people you can trust. But why is Sisu so sure that Namaari is one of them? It could so easily have gone the other way, even though we knew it wouldn’t, because it’s a Disney movie and they don’t take those kinds of narrative risks.

Raya and the last dragon also look too much like Moana. I hope Disney doesn’t find a new formula to brag about for a decade. Look, I like Moana. It’s a great movie with a likable protagonist who has to overcome real weaknesses and a fantastic soundtrack. But why would the movie look like this? A young princess from a fancy version of a faraway land must find a magic man and bring the thing to where she is, or it’s all over. It’s not exactly the same, but the stories mirror each other and have the same message: there is no real bad guy and we need to listen and work together. To be fair, Raya isn’t a musical like Moana was either. It really surprised me; I guess in retrospect it didn’t sell as a musical, but I didn’t think it would sell. After Brave, this is only the second Disney Princess movie that is not a musical. The resemblance of Raya and the last dragon to Moana does her no good. Moana is a great movie and Raya is not. Now they will still be compared, and I can’t imagine the results will be in Rye’s favor.

Overall, the biggest problem with Paradise and the Last Dragon is that the characters and story are good. I really like the idea of Raya as a character on paper with the difficulties she goes through, and the vocal performance is pretty good. But I never really connected with this character on a deeper level, like Moana or Rapunzel or any of the great Disney characters. I know that if this wasn’t a Disney movie, I would have forgotten about it tomorrow. The story is thin, but unlike great films like The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon, Raya doesn’t manage to make up for it. She’s not charming, funny or emotional enough to draw you into her world and her characters. When Raya cries at the thought of losing her father, it seems artificial to me. I don’t expect it to be real, it’s a movie. Everything is alive, and I know it. But just because it’s all wrong doesn’t mean it is. Raya has a lot to offer, but most of what really matters is just good enough.

Conclusion: Ok

Raya and the Last Dragon is one of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen. The choreography of the fight is incredibly well done. His musical score is beautiful and moving, and his voice acting is good. This movie has a great message, and it has flaws as a main character with lessons that I can always appreciate. I see the idea that we have become too tribal as a fact. But the characters and their relationships are very good. Namari is too underdeveloped for what they want to do with her. I also would have liked to see more real feelings between Raya and her father in the beginning and especially at the end. It’s a very simple story about putting things together to achieve a greater goal, and I’m fine with that. But it takes more than that to balance such a banal and simple story, and Raya and the Last Dragon doesn’t have that. I thought the movie was more than good, and I recommend seeing it just for the animation and music. I also think the kids will love it, especially the Moana fans. Or you can wait until it’s free if you’re not as impatient a Disney shallow guy as I am.

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