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‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ is ‘joyous,’ ‘dynamic’ and a visual marvel, critics say

Disney has done it again.

On Monday, reviews for the studio’s latest animated feature “Raya and the Last Dragon” began to trickle in, signaling that the House of Mouse has yet another hit on its hands.

So far, the film, which is due to hit theaters and Disney+ premiere access on Friday, holds a 96% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 89 reviews.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” takes place in Kumandra, a place where humans and dragons once lived together in harmony. However, when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves, channeling their powers into a gemstone, to save humanity.

Five hundred years later, Kumandra splintered into five provinces — Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail and Talon. When one of the five tries to steal the gemstone, it shatters, weakening its powers and bringing back the Druun. In the process Raya’s father Benja, chief of the Heart Land, is turned to stone.

This sends Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) on a quest to summon the spirit of Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon, and reunite the pieces of the gemstone to save Kumandra and her father.

Throughout the film, Raya and Sisu put together a ragtag crew that includes an orphan who runs a floating restaurant, a con-artist baby, a team of monkey henchmen, and the last soldier standing from the Spine province.

Raya’s quest also puts her directly in the path of Namaari (Gemma Chan), the Fang princess who was directly responsible for breaking the gem and turning Raya’s father into stone.

Critics widely praised Disney’s latest animated feature, which comes from its Disney Animation division, a sister studio to Pixar. Many pointed to the film’s achievements in visual effects, particularly when it comes to its depiction of water and in its fast-paced action sequences.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is “well worth the price of admission,” wrote Brandon Katz in his review of the film for Observer, noting that those that were disappointed after spending $30 to watch “Mulan” will be pleased with the quality of the film.

“The film is nothing short of a joyous experience that champions a hopeful optimism in humanity’s ability to trust one another despite ample evidence to the contrary,” Katz wrote. “…The relevant themes combine with slick animation and surprisingly excellent martial arts-based action to deliver the best animated Disney film since ‘Moana.'”

Here’s what critics thought of “Raya and the Last Dragon” ahead of its debut on Friday:

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap

Alonso Duralde’s review of “Raya and the Last Dragon” commended the film for its dynamic female leads and complex character-driven storytelling.

In the past, animated features about princesses relied heavily on romantic story lines and musical interludes.

“There’s neither a love story nor musical numbers here, and neither are missed,” Duralde writes. “This is a film brimming over with humor and adventure, breathtaking fight choreography and eye-popping fantasy.”

Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Chan, faces off against Namaari, voiced by Gemma Chan, in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney

He refers to Raya and Namaari, rival princesses, as more akin to Xena than Sleeping Beauty.

“That Disney has gotten to a place where it can accommodate complex storytelling, characters of color (the voice cast also includes Sandra Oh, Sung Kang and Patti Harrison) and women with strength and agency makes ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ both a groundbreaker for one of Hollywood’s most venerable animation studios and, one hopes, a harbinger of more challenging entertainments in the years to come,” he said.

Read the full review from The Wrap.

Angie Han, Mashable

Angie Han, from Mashable, too, pointed out that Raya isn’t a typical Disney princess of a bygone era.

“Raya sits comfortably alongside other recent Disney princesses — Moana, Elsa and Anna, Vanellope von Schweetz — who’ve veered away from classic fairy tale tropes in search of more expansive adventures on the horizon,” she wrote in her review of the film.

Disney strikes a balance between “cute comedy’ and “sincere drama,” Han says, blending high-speed action sequences with beautiful vistas and endearing characters.

Alan Tudyk lends his voice to Tuk Tuk in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney

“It’s easy enough to guess from the get-go where this is all headed, and in case you’re still struggling to keep up, ‘Raya’ has a habit of repeating pertinent plot points or explaining scenes we just saw,” she wrote. “Fortunately, the journey isn’t all that much less enjoyable for being somewhat predictable — if anything, there’s satisfaction in its tidiness, like clicking together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

Read the full review from Mashable.

Brandon Katz, Observer

Katz’s review praised the CG animation created for the feature.

“The varying designs, color schemes, and even architecture of each culture, specifically tailored to each tribe down to the hairstyle, is a sight to behold,” he wrote. “It’s nothing short of amazing that the majority of the production work was done from home in the pandemic.”

Katz also pointed out that much of the voice acting was also captured away from the office. In fact, “Raya and the Last Dragon” is the first Walt Disney Animation Studios film to be produced primarily at home.

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina star in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney

Working from home doesn’t appear to have hindered Disney’s animation team. Katz assures viewers that “Raya” is worth the price of admission or the price of Disney’s premiere access.

“Disney+ subscribers who may or may not feel burned after shelling out $30 for ‘Mulan’ need not worry,” he wrote. “Raya and the Last Dragon” is one purchase you won’t regret.”

Read the full review from Observer.

Scott Mendelson, Forbes

Scott Mendelson was more critical of Disney’s newest animated film. In his review for Forbes, Mendelson noted that “Raya” is a “visual delight but formulaic to a fault.”

“Their 59th feature-length animated film plays like a loose remake of ‘Moana’, with themes and character arcs gently borrowed from the likes of’ Frozen’ and ‘Zootopia,’ including a ‘there are no villains’ mentality that frankly plays downright insidious and detrimental in our current hellscape,” he wrote.

Mendelson noted that the journey to reunite the broken pieces of the magical gemstone was also far too easy.    

“The notion that nobody trusts each other is somewhat countered by how reasonable most friends and foes turn out to be in this hero’s journey,” he wrote.

Awkwafina and Kelly Marie Tran lend their voices to Sisu and Raya in Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon.”

Disney

He also said that “Raya” is set up to provide future sequel films or even episodic content for Disney’s streaming service.

“Kids will enjoy this one,” Mendelson wrote. “My nine-year-old enjoyed himself while my 13-year-old echoed my moderate nitpicks and complaints.”

He pointed out that his indifference for the film may have come from watching “Raya” at home instead of in a theater.

“Had I seen this in a theater as intended, I may have been slightly more forgiving of the adherence to no harm/no foul franchise-friendly formula,” Mendelson wrote. “…[‘Raya’ is] the by-default event movie of the moment and expected to be all things to all demographics.”

Read the full review from Forbes.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal own Rotten Tomatoes.

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